The guy in charge
GREG MILES PHOTOGRAPH
When I walk into Brennan’s, the orchid-pink Royal Street building – a veritable New Orleans landmark – is filled with the hubbub of a construction project that probably needed to be done yesterday. Dust is flying, construction tools are sounding, little meetings are happening everywhere. When I ask Ralph Brennan, the guy in charge of all of this who never even thought he’d be in charge, when he thinks they’ll be open, he just says “Soon.”
There is a lot of work to be done when there’s a culinary institution poised to be reborn. The restaurant was the locus of legal woes and Brennan family feuding. Ralph Brennan, cousin of the former owners, bought the property in a sheriff’s auction along with business partner Terry White.
The new Brennan’s seems like it won’t be your overpriced, overindulgent French Quarter brunch spot (don’t worry: there will still be bananas Foster, which Brennan’s invented).
First, Ralph Brennan’s restaurants (Ralph’s on the Park, Red Fish Grill, café b, Heritage Grill, Café NOMA in the New Orleans Museum of Art and Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney) tend to have a refined take on Louisiana cuisine. And with Slade Rushing, former chef of the hip restaurant MiLa known for its deconstructed dishes, at the helm, the menu will showcase a contemporary approach to Creole cooking. As for the property itself, the new dining room will face Royal Street, where passersby peering in can see the restaurant’s lush courtyard, which includes a wine cellar that will open later. Amid all the construction, I talked to Ralph Brennan about his latest venture.
Q: When you first knew Brennan’s would close, what was your reaction? Sad. It was a family business. It was my family. So I was definitely saddened by the whole thing. But as I told them … I wanted to help. I wanted the tradition to continue. That’s why I’m here. I didn’t want this to go outside the family.
I grew up in this restaurant. I used to play in this restaurant as a child. I was talking to one of my cousins the other day and we were sharing stories, and there are a lot of similarities. He’s a lot younger but he played here, too. For Mardi Gras – my mother was a Mardi Gras fanatic – we’d come down here and sit in one of the dining rooms next to the balcony and we’d do our homework and have dinner. And then the parades were still coming through the French Quarter so we’d go out on the balcony. It was great because you could almost touch the floats. We’d catch beads and my mother would make us walk around the dining room and give beads out to the guests who didn’t get a chance to see the parade.
Q: Where does the tradition of the bells you give out around the holidays originate? That’s a great question. I don’t know if I know the answer to that. It might have started at Commander’s in 1974 when the family split and went its separate ways. My side of the family moved up to Commander’s and it probably started there, and the next restaurant after that was Mr. B’s and we just carried it on for our side of the family. It’s kind of fun. Periodically during the holiday season I’ll be over at one of the offices in a meeting or be in an elevator and hear the jingling of the bells. And there are some people who like to collect them all.
Q: What wisdom have you gleaned over the years about running a business with family? Well I think the most important thing you need to do is to run it as a business, not a family business. And what I mean by that is family members have to produce and have to perform, just like everyone else. Not everyone can be the chief, and everyone needs to find their niche. There are some things I can do very well and some things I can’t do. I think in families you have to find that same kind of niche. For example, if someone’s good with financials instead of being in the front of the house, then they’re in the office. I have a son who loves to cook. I don’t know how long he’ll stay in the kitchen. He went to culinary school, so maybe he’ll stay in the kitchen. I have a daughter who loves the front of the house.
Q: Do you see yourself continuing to expand or after this do you want to relax for a little while? (Laughs) I’m laughing because I didn’t expect this. Honestly, I was thinking of slowing down a bit with the other restaurants, but this came about and I said let’s go. I don’t know. I’m going to go take a long nap one day when this is finished.
Age: 62 Occupation: Restaurateur, Ralph Brennan Group Education: Tulane University Favorite movie: Top Gun Favorite book: “I don’t have a favorite book, but I started reading Richard Campanella’s book about Bourbon Street … I love the way he writes and I love the history.” Favorite musician: Diana Ross Favorite vacation spot: Aspen, Colorado Favorite restaurant: “No comment”