Saturday, June 9, 2018

Remembering Ella Brennan

The Crescent of the Crescent City became one with the stars.  Ella Brennan died last week.  The 92 year-old matriarch of the Brennan family founded Brennan's and Commander's Palace while launching the careers of Emeril and Paul Prudhomme.  She left behind a trail that was followed by many but blazed by few.

 A documentary of her life, Commanding the Table, is available on Netflix and DVD.  It is very entertaining and well worth watching - after pouring a glass of wine, of course. 

The Times-Picayune memorialized one whose life can't be reduced to a few words:

Ella Brennan had become such a force in the restaurant industry that it was easy to forget how young and green she was when she started.

Her first job came at age 18 at the Olde Absinthe House, a Bourbon Street bar owned by her brother, Owen.

Three years later, in 1946, Owen hired her to run his latest acquisition, a French Quarter restaurant called Vieux Carre. "I didn't know anything," she said in a 2017 New York Times profile. "But Owen was a raconteur. He slept till noon. He got me to do all of the things he didn't like. So I learned."

She learned, and she led the way for other women in an industry that was dominated by men.

After her death Thursday morning (May 31) at age 92, her family described her this way: "She broke every boundary that she came up against, opening restaurants during a time when female ownership was unprecedented, and fostering an incredible sense of community in each kitchen and dining room she touched."

Sue Zemanick, the former chef at Gautreau's and a line cook at Commander's early in her career, talked about Ella Brennan's influence Thursday. "There weren't that many women in the kitchen at that time, much less running it," Ms. Zemanick said. "She was always active and such an important part of the restaurant. She'd be at the chef's table, tasting the food. It was just so nice to see a woman running the show and seeing her daughter there, too, it made me realize you don't have to be a man to make it in this industry."

Ms. Brennan took over the family business at age 31 when Owen died unexpectedly in 1955. She ran Brennan's in the French Quarter until a dispute fractured the family, and she was fired in 1973. But she wasn't done, not nearly.

She and her sister, Adelaide, had bought Commander's Palace in 1969. It was there, on the corner of Washington Avenue and Coliseum Street, that Miss Ella -- as she was widely known -- made her mark on the culinary world and on her hometown.

Commander's had existed in that spot since 1893, but it became one of the most important restaurants in New Orleans after she took over. She launched the careers of celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse from that aqua-and-white building and changed the way people looked at native Louisiana dishes.

Ms. Brennan didn't cook. But she understood flavor and how to make diners feel pampered and appreciated. Commander's Palace thrived because of her vision, her savvy and her joie de vivre. Weekend brunch features balloons on the tables and roaming musicians.

"I don't want a restaurant where a jazz band can't come marching through," Ms. Brennan said on the cover of her memoir, "Miss Ella of Commander's Palace."

That spirit was present after Hurricane Katrina, when the restaurant was shuttered for 13 months for extensive renovations. There was no doubt it would reopen, though.

"We never even paused to consider not coming back. No way. Hell no. New Orleans is our town and she needed us as much as we needed her," Ms. Brennan said in her autobiography.

New Orleanians definitely needed the return of those joy-filled Sunday brunches. Commander's is a point of pride in this community. Ms. Brennan and her stellar chefs achieved a level of excellence that few restaurants can match.

She was inducted into the Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America by the James Beard Foundation in 1984. The restaurant won James Beard awards for Outstanding Service in 1993 and Outstanding Restaurant in 1996. "I accept this award for every damn captain and waiter in the country," Ms. Brennan said in her acceptance speech in 1993, endearing herself to waitstaff everywhere.

In 2009, the James Beard Foundation gave her a lifetime achievement award.

The next generation, daughter Ti Martin and niece Lally Brennan, were named to the Beard Who's Who list in May. They didn't go to Chicago for the ceremony, though, because Miss Ella wasn't well. They celebrated with champagne and caviar-topped oysters in Commander's wine cellar. It wasn't how the night was planned, but it seems fitting.

Their restaurant is known as the place to celebrate a special occasion.

The iconic lighted sign in front of Commander's Palace went dark Thursday night as a sign of mourning.

But, as Miss Ella undoubtedly would have wanted, the restaurant was open, feeding people and nourishing their spirits, as she had done for seven decades.


Anonymous said...

Such a remarkable woman. RIP

Anonymous said...

My wife worked at Commander's and Ella for several years. One of my favorite Ella stories was one day she overheard someone tell Tom Benson that they had no tables left. She told them to get a damn hammer and saw and make Mr. Bensonom a damn table.

Anonymous said...

Most folks in New Orleans knows they stole most of their recipes.

Anonymous said...

Stole Recipes---Ohhh, Ok yeah thats why they did so well.

Anonymous said...

Yep a lot of successful people stole it and the Brennan's are not an exception.

Escoffier said...

Eleven-seventeen,, what an asinine, irrelevant comment. As far as I know, recipes are not subject to copyright law.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful lady who will be missed. Watch the Netflix documentary on her. It is great!

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

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In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

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This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS