For over 30 years, Chef Frank Brigtsen has been a touchstone for New Orleans dining, exemplifying the lessons he learned from Ella Brennan and Paul Prudhomme from the point in time when our local cuisine exploded into the national consciousness. To recognize all has done, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience is pleased to award him with this year’s Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award. “Frank has been a mentor for so many in our community,” explained Aimee Brown, Executive Director of the NOWFE. “He is our chef of chefs. It was our time to honor him. It was an obvious choice – he really embodies New Orleans cooking.”
The Brigtsen’s, Brennan’s and Prudhomme’s worlds first intersected in the kitchens of Commander’s Palace back in 1978. Prudhomme was the executive chef when Brigtsen was hired as a pantry apprentice. Professional kitchens, tumultuous places in the best of times, were especially raucous in the 1970s. A battlefield promotion mentality reigned. One night a cook on the hot apps station was sent home for drinking and Brigtsen was the next one up. “I got thrown into the line then and there,” Brigtsen said. “That’s where I learned how to shake a skillet.” The back line was typically a two-person position, but Brigtsen was soon handling it solo, thereby catching the eye of Prudhomme. His ascent was swift.
While he was only at Commander’s for six months, in that time he rotated through every position. He picked up a career’s worth of experience, not just in skill but also in leadership, stemming from the example set by Miss Ella. Once incident stands out. The actor Caesar Ramirez was getting the VIP treatment with a tour of the kitchen led by Miss Ella, when a busboy behind them dropped a tub full of dirty dishes. “It made a huge crash,” he said. “It scared the hell out of Mr. Ramirez– he jumped – but Miss Ella didn’t flinch. She just kept walking and talking. Later on, she told me, ‘Frank – you know why I didn’t react? Because that young man felt bad enough. And if I’d turned around and berated him it would have just made the situation worse.’” Here was a lesson in managing people. “You have to have compassion. And a way of doing things by setting an example. Being mindful that these are human beings – that they are doing their best and that mistakes happen. Her style of leadership was priceless.”
Prudhomme left Commander’s with the blessing and support of Miss Ella to open K-Paul’s, an institution which blazed a trail for the phenomenon of the celebrity chef. Soon after he brought Brigtsen on to help. Brigtsen spent seven years there, acquiring the experience to set out on his own. And when Prudhomme saw that he was ready, he helped Brigtsen out. He set him up with a real estate agent and CPA, helped him negotiate the lease, and in 1986 Brigtsen and his wife Marna opened the doors of a little cottage in the Riverbend. Here it has remained ever since, preserving a snapshot in time of one of the most formative periods of culinary history of New Orleans.
It is notable that, unlike Commander’s and K-Paul’s, Brigtsen’s is an intimate oasis far removed from the glamor of the Garden District or the hustle of the French Quarter. The restaurant is an expression of Brigtsen himself, there is no ego or plans for empire. He has operated it together with Marna (whom he met while at K-Paul’s) for decades now. In his spare time, such as it is with this business, he has found time to teach at NOCCA. He is a chef’s chef, admired within the industry for his kindness and humility – traits Miss Ella embodied and that he took to heart.
The industry’s greatest expression was crystalized for Frank following the events of September 11, 2001. “Like a lot of Americans it rocked my world,” he recalled. “In the wake of what happened, I felt that what I did for a living was trivial.” But as time passed, he noticed people in the restaurant were smiling and enjoying themselves again. “That struck me. I realized the importance of hospitality at that moment. Especially as defined by Ella. Our role is to create a couple of hours for people to enjoy the good things in life. Not just the food and wine, but the company of friends and family. To create this little bubble of joy to escape the outside world, if only for a brief time.”