Ella Brennan, the restaurateur who put multiple New Orleans dining icons on the map, including the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Commander's Palace, died yesterday morning at her Garden District home. She was 92.
Starting in restaurants just out of high school, Brennan was a master at balancing great food and first-class service. She was a visionary, recruiting promising young unknowns like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse to helm her kitchens. She saw potential in American regional flavors and championed California wines when they were on the cusp of greatness. And she also believed that fine dining should be fun.
"I don't want a restaurant where a jazz band can't come marching through," she often said.
Brennan had been in declining health for some time. But she hadn't lost her appreciation of good food and good wine. Her house, located next door to Commander's Palace, was a quick walk for executive chef Tory McPhail, delivering dinner straight from the restaurant, or for wine director Dan Davis, carrying a bottle of white Burgundy. After Davis served her a Corton-Charlemagne recently, he recounted, "She told me, 'I'm too old to drink cheap wine.'"
Ella Brennan was born on Nov. 27, 1925, the fourth of six children. She started working in her older brother Owen's Bourbon Street bar in 1943, just out of high school, doing clerical work and helping balance the books. A born showman, Owen brought people in the door, while Ella kept things running. When he expanded to a restaurant next door, the whole family began helping out. And when Ella complained about the service and food, he told her, according to her memoir, "You think you're so smart? Well, go fix it, smarty pants."
She embraced the challenge, working with the chefs to improve the menu and training the staff to be professional. Insatiably curious, she began reading every cookbook and wine guide she could find. She would later travel to New York and Europe, looking for ideas. While she never became a chef, she learned what tasted good, what needed to be fixed and what customers wanted.
When the restaurant lease was set to expire in 1956, the family prepared to move two blocks to a new location on Royal Street. But Owen died of a heart attack just months before the move. Ella and her siblings—John, Adelaide, Dick and Dottie—carried on, finding new financial backers and making the new Brennan's even more beloved than the original.
Two decades later, a conflict with Owen's widow and sons led to a family split. Ella and her siblings left Brennan's in 1973, and focused their energies on a rundown Garden District restaurant called Commander's Palace that they had purchased five years earlier. (Ella would not return to Brennan's for 40 years, until John's son Ralph and a partner bought the restaurant out of bankruptcy and revitalized it.)
Commander's was one of the first New Orleans restaurants to put the chef out front. Brennan started that when she hired a young Cajun chef named Paul Prudhomme. No one thought Cajun food could be sophisticated. At a time when regional cuisine and farm-to-table cooking was just beginning, Brennan delighted in proving the naysayers wrong.
When Prudhomme struck out on his own, she found another young talent, a 25-year-old rookie from Massachusetts named Emeril Lagasse. He upped the menu at Commander's again, and Brennan taught him professionalism and how to manage a team, skills he would take when he started his own restaurants. Talented cooks like Jamie Shannon and McPhail followed, and many of New Orleans' top chefs today got their start working the line at Commander's.
While the kitchen pushed the boundaries of New Orleans fine dining, Brennan maintained quality control. And she taught her front-of-the-house staff to make fine dining both luxurious and fun. At Commander's, balloons often decorate chairs, diners don chef's toques, and a jazz band second lines through the place every Sunday morning. Brennan knew how to make people feel beloved.
"Ella had the magic of always making me feel special while in her presence," said restaurateur Danny Meyer. "Whether it was her first visit to Union Square Cafe, or my first visit to Commander’s Palace, a quick word, a smile, an accolade, a hug … any of those things from Ella made me feel like I was a made man."
"She was a great teacher and mentor," said her nephew Ralph, whose company now owns seven restaurants. "I could just go sit in her office and talk to her, even when I was in college. She taught me continuous improvement—that you have to keep getting better. She would show me a bell curve and say if you weren’t constantly improving, you’d start going downhill. That’s a lesson I use all the time with my team. A year from now, we have to be better than we are today."
Always a believer in good wine, Brennan became a champion of California wines in the 1970s (in a French wine town) and invited people like Robert Mondavi to come organize dinners and a symposium. Her successors, daughter Ti Adelaide Martin and niece Lally Brennan, further expanded the wine program, winning a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2012.
In the past decade, Brennan handed off the reins and enjoyed more time at home. She was a voracious reader, devouring newspapers and magazines, usually focused on politics and on what lessons restaurateurs could draw from other industries. She often told friends that her idea of heaven was a saloon in the sky, where the people were fascinating to talk to and the wine was outstanding.
And she continued to teach, as Ralph remembers when she visited Brennan's for the first time in 40 years. "Later in the evening, back downstairs, the younger generation [her grandnephews and grandnieces] sat with her and asked her questions," he said. "She talked to them a long time."
Ella is survived by her sister Dottie, her daughter Ti, her son Alex Brennan-Martin, who manages Brennan's of Houston, and two grandchildren, as well as numerous nieces, nephews and their children. The various branches of the Brennan family own and operate 15 restaurants.
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