On behalf of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, we are deeply saddened by the passing of legendary restaurateur Ella Brennan. We had the joy of interviewing her in late 2016 for the LRA magazine about her life, passion and her then, new book with her daughter Ti Martin, Miss Ella of Commander's Palace.
She was inducted into the LRA Hall of Fame in 1987 and mentored countless culinarians throughout her long career. Daughter Ti Martin and cousin Lally Brennan helm the Commander's Family of Restaurants and were selected as the LRA's Restaurateurs of the Year in 2016.
Miss Ella of Commander's Palace
by Wendy Waren
“Who would want to hear about this?” said Ella Brennan, when asked why she waited so long to write her book. “I just didn’t think people would want to know about me and my work in the restaurants.”
Her memoir titled, Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace, written with her spitfire of a daughter Ti Martin, is one you will not be able to put down. Chalk full of food memories, stories of family connectedness, heartbreak and heartache, and overcoming adversity in the midst of turbulent times, this book has it all. There’s even threatening ruffians and a call in to a New Orleans mob boss.
“There’s a lot to be said about Ella,” said Chef Frank Brigtsen. “She has a sharp mind and sharp palette. She is a quick read. She can look at a dish, taste it and immediately tell if it’s a winner or not.”
When you read the book, it will seem like she’s sitting right next to you telling you these remarkable stories about her family’s history—her parents Nellie and John, her beloved older brother Owen and glamorous sister Adelaide, and siblings John, Dick and Dottie. If you’ve ever dined at one of the family restaurants, especially Commander’s Palace, you will really begin to understand the Brennan philosophy of hospitality.
“He (Owen) was always saying to us, ‘You’ve got to make these people feel that you’re happy to have them. You’ve got to make them feel, and you just don’t show, you feel.’ That was a big word-feel,” said Ella, take from the book.
Learning how to cook never happened for her and she was thrust into Owen’s first restaurant when she was barely 20 years old. To hear her tell it, the place was a pitiful excuse for a restaurant as the shrimp was teeny and the menu boring and she would tell Owen constantly, “Your restaurant stinks.” Finally, to shut her up, he challenged her to go fix it.
“She won’t tell me what’s wrong with the dish, she’ll just tell me something’s not right,” said Tory McPhail, Executive Chef at Commander’s Palace. “In the beginning, I’d ask her to tell me what’s wrong and she doesn’t know, and I’d have to go back through all the ingredients and reevaluate each component until I got it right.”
A breakfast of scrambled eggs and sautéed bananas like her mother made, is to this day one of her favorite things.
“Thankfully my sister Dottie has mastered making them just like my mother,” she said sharply. “I live right next door to the restaurant and when the chefs make it, I have to coach them on how to do it right.”
When asked what she enjoys to eat right now, today, she replied, “Whatever the chef says is fresh. I love a good soft shell crab and redfish or trout.” Ti quipped, “She loves fish.”
If you ever wondered how Paul Prudhomme came to be at Commander’s Palace alongside Ella Brennan, the book tells the story. Brigtsen testifies that “She and Dick took a dramatically bold step in hiring Paul, and together, they broke the mold of New Orleans cuisine of the time and evolved it with a freedom that revolutionized Louisiana and New Orleans food.”
“He’d put a sauce on part of the dish and another sauce somewhere else, and I would find myself saying, ‘Stop it, Paul. Calm down. Let’s do something simple,’ and he’d respond, ‘But did you taste it?’’’
Brigtsen added, “They were both self-confident enough to insert their opinions and compromise on dishes. For example, Ms. Ella thought his gumbo was too heavy to be a first course or appetizer, so she challenged him to lighten it up and he did—with a roux-less gumbo.”
Emeril was a baby of a chef when he began at Commander’s and she didn’t think much of him at first, but he came to be a good leader and mentor to others and she is proud of the mark he made on Commander’s and the culinary world at large.
“Emeril furthered the evolution of the Haute Creole cuisine and expanded on what Paul had been doing with Cajun, but he also brought his French-Canadian/Portuguese heritage and his own insatiable curiosity to bear on the menu, “ said Ella.
Tales of Emeril’s hand-selected predecessor Jamie Shannon and his cut to short life, and current chef McPhail, are educational outlooks on identifying and fostering talent within the four walls of the restaurant.
All of this behind the scenes work was done with the diner first and foremost. She is passionate about her patrons having an unforgettable experience complete with a feeling that they are family. As I’ve been lucky to experience on a number of occasions, course after course of conversation stopping, mouthwatering cuisine—my favorite meal at Commander’s goes like this: the Shrimp and Tasso Henican, followed by the boudin stuffed quail lacquered with bourbon or cherry brandy, and the bread pudding souffl é or Strawberry shortcake in season.
“Upon first meeting Ella, many people have reported how truly intimidated they were, especially chefs,” added Brigtsen. “While she is direct and to the point, she is never rude and would never use a mistake to tear you down, but rather use the experience to build you up and make you better.”
In the beginning of his career at Commander’s, Ella would meet with McPhail in the restaurant kitchen, and she taught him early on that every dish has to tell a story and that she wanted something on the menu from the grill.
“How do you make steak on a plate tell a story,” asked McPhail. “We are not a steak house, but if you want a steak, we know the Louisiana farmers of Black Angus beef and for the first time ever, we are aging our beef on the second floor of the restaurant. Pair that with fresh vegetables from Covey Rise Farm on the Northshore and you’ve got a great local story.”
Everyone who has had the opportunity to sit with her tells of her ability to get them thinking about things from a different perspective.
Her peers in the industry speak of her as someone who is always doing for others, giving to the community and does not want any fanfare. One of her most notable admirers is Leah Chase of Dooky Chase Restaurant who could not say enough nice things about Ella.
“Let me tell you how exceptional Ella is,” said Chase. “Our restaurant had gotten the worst review from a critic and I was ready to take it on the chin. But Ella wasn’t going to stand for it and she got everyone she knew in huff about it and ended up talking to the writer about it. She sent me the biggest bouquet of flowers. That’s the kind of woman she is and I’m proud she’s my friend.”
“She does this thing called trust and respect,” said Martin. “I come to work every day and I have to try to earn your trust and respect. As an employee, the cook, the dishwasher, General Manager, you don’t owe me any trust and respect, I have to earn that, and you got to earn mine. If we can work from that premise every day,
we can do some magical things.”
The recently released Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace is available in book stores nationwide now.