In a city where fine dining is often promoted by the faces of its famous chefs, it can be easy to overlook the people who helped them get there. Ella Brennan is foremost among these mentors. In her long career she has accrued more awards, accolades and honors than she likely has time to count. To this mix is now added a new one from the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, named for her and presented first to her: The Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Ella is just a legend in the New Orleans hospitality industry,” says NOWFE Executive Director Joyce Godbold.
“She has set the standard for how restaurants set themselves up to be successful and she has such a history of giving back to the community.”
Challenged by her brother Owen, Ella Brennan jumped headfirst into the business in the mid-1940s at the age of 18.
“Owen bought a restaurant and I complained about how terrible it was,” she recalls. “He told me, ‘Well if you are so damn smart why don’t you go do something about it?’”
She did, and was soon running the place. Back then there were no culinary programs; you had to learn as you went.
Brennan learned from a pair of cooks, who sat her on a bar stool and showed her how they went about their work.
This indoctrination, augmented by extensive reading, travel and a family friendship with the 21 Club in New York City, provided an invaluable foundation.
She never cooked; Owen told her at the onset, “I’ll get the customers; you bring them back.” Her job was more about organization and hospitality (though her palate is justifiably famous). She had a unusually savvy mind and knack for the business. And in an era when most women were settling down, she was just getting started. “Most women then were getting married and having families and that sort of thing. I never thought about being a woman and it never dawned on me that I could ever not do what I was asked to do.”
When her family bought the restaurant that was to become Commander’s Palace in 1969 it was, in her words, “A mess.”
“I sat inside of it and I said, ‘I am ashamed of this restaurant.’ At the time, there was a depression going on. Our family sat down and said there is nothing we can do about what is going on outside these walls, but we sure can do something about what’s in here.”
Upstairs was a storage and changing room for waiters. One month later the wall was blown out and it became the Garden Room, soon to become one of the most sought-after dining rooms in the city, if not the nation. Coupled with the revamp of the property (accomplished on a shoestring budget) was a willingness to experiment in the kitchen, to reinvigorate New Orleans cuisine with innovation and verve. The food, while serious, would be fun, and it would be different from anything else in the city. Haute Creole was born.
So the food was innovative. What about the environs? The Jazz Brunch, conceived over a phone call with her brother Dick, came to encapsulate the Commander’s experience. Wandering jazz bands, a carefully composed menu and sunlight streaming through the windows of the Garden Room made this an instant tradition for locals. Brennan recalls the past owner of Preservation Hall sending a full-on brass ensemble with 29 trombones (“I’d love to have them,” she said when asked if they could come, “but will they fit?”) through the front door, the dining rooms and the kitchen, and then out onto the patio for drinks. “People wanted to do these crazy things,” she says. “That made this place fun.”
Indeed, Brennan doesn’t like a stuffy restaurant. “I like a restaurant you go into and someone gives you this big hello.
They don’t have to know you, but if they’re smart, they will have a system that will know you.” That last sentence is important. She has put systems into place at Commander’s Palace that are the rough equivalent of capturing lightning in a bottle. The teamwork is outstanding, they keep track of what customers like and (perhaps more importantly) what they don’t, and everyone who comes through the door is greeted personably. Ticking below the surface is a careful method of gathering information and preferences, knowledge that is then used to build up the diner’s next experience.
When Brennan started, the big hotels were not here, nor was the convention business. She has played a role in bringing both of these to the city, securing the visitors who support the hospitality market. Helping to establish this, while nurturing her in-house talent and putting systems in place to result in repeat business, is part of her legacy.
Along the way both she and her restaurants have never lost their warmth, graciousness and fun. These were the founding principles, and they remain in place today.
“You are lucky when you get a job to do what you really enjoy doing,” Brennan says. “And that was my position. I’ve had a ball.”