If a restaurant is like a circus, then Ella Brennan, co-owner of Commander’s Palace, is the ringmaster minus the top hat and actual whip. (Though a few chefs and cooks who have passed through her kitchen may disagree about what constitutes a whip – perhaps a meaningful look?) Years ago, before Commander’s Palace’s current renovation, when the bar was pretty much only accessible via the kitchen, you could get a good view of the kitchen in action – the circus’s center ring, one that moves like an Igor Stravinsky symphony, all discordant yet working in harmony. Brennan would be sitting at a table – either entertaining special guests or watching with a discerning eye (or both) – ready to correct an error apparent only to her.
The second ring includes the various dining rooms – Commander’s has that extra challenge of serving guests on two floors – and the third ring, the front and back of the house staff. As with the kitchen, one sweep through showed all that Brennan needed to know. Like a circus, a restaurant’s three rings are separate entities yet at any moment can fall apart at the smallest or largest of errors. Calming this controlled chaos – but allowing creativity to indulge itself – is essential, as the most talented of ringmasters might secretly know but will never divulge.
Brennan and her sister Dottie Brennan share a house just around the corner from the restaurant, connected by a lush garden pathway – allowing her a casual but grand entrance to come and go. “When it’s this hour [6-ish], it’s time to get ready, come downstairs and make a drink before heading over,” says Brennan, who’s semi-retired.
In a business that can defeat even the most talented men or women, Brennan has persevered and succeeded – and her immediate family members have gone on to open their own restaurants: daughter Ti Martin and niece Lally Brennan, who are also part of the Commander’s team, launched Café Adelaide and Swizzle Stick Bar (inspired by Brennan’s flamboyant sister Adelaide) in New Orleans, and a new restaurant in Destin, Fla. in early July. Ella’s sister, Dottie Brennan, is often by her side, ensuring that it all runs smoothly.
Commander’s, which was founded as a restaurant in 1880 by Emile Commander, and in 1974 was taken over by Ella, Dottie, Dick and John Brennan, has set the standard for Creole and American cuisine. Gourmets have Brennan – and her family – to thank for one of the greatest shows on earth.
Occupation: Co-owner, Commander’s Palace
Born and raised: New Orleans
Education: McMain High School
Resides: Garden District
Children: Alexis (Alex) Martin and Adelaide (Ti) Martin; 2 grandchildren
Favorite TV show: Charlie Rose
Favorite movie: Sleepless in Seattle – I get a kick out of it.
Favorite musician: I love [Frank] Sinatra, but my favorite is Louis Armstrong.
Favorite dish: Redfish or snapper, sautéed, and whatever the chef puts on it.
Favorite drink: Sazerac
Favorite restaurant: The old 21 in New York City
Favorite restaurant in New Orleans: We do an “eat around.” We eat out frequently – casual or dressed up.
Favorite book: I love biographies. Particularly, the ones about Kay Graham; John Adams; Winston Churchill’s mother, Jenny Churchill; and the book about when Roosevelt and Churchill met at the White House during World War II.
When did you start in the restaurant business? 17, 18 years old. At the Old Absinthe House, which my brother Owen owned.
How did you learn the business? I read everything I could – cookbooks, books about food, wine, business – and watched cooks. We traveled constantly, going to the best restaurants in Europe. It was a good education – especially during the late 1970s/early 1980s when nouvelle French cuisine was becoming more prominent, as well as regional American cuisine. We would deconstruct the dishes and re-create them.
Was it hard to be a woman in this business? Didn’t think about it.
Do you cook? No. Who the hell wants to cook? But my mother was a good cook, and from that I learned about how good food should taste.
What are your favorite cities to dine in – excluding New Orleans – and are there any particular restaurants you would go to again? Oh, none. We like to go round and round [to restaurants]. We like to go to France … like Italy. [Dottie Brennan interjects: “When we go to New York, we get a limousine, a map, pick a neighborhood and go from restaurant to restaurant. Have a cocktail here, an appetizer at another place, and on.”]
What chefs have you worked with at Commander’s Palace? The late Jamie Shannon was sensational. Paul Prudhomme; Emeril Lagasse; Danny Trace; Emmanuel Loubier; Richard Bentz; Tom Robey; and the restaurant’s current chef, Tory McPhail.
How have chefs changed over the years? When I started, there weren’t chefs; there were cooks. Today a chef runs the kitchen; the cook cooks. The chef is like a coach of a team – hires and teaches the [kitchen] staff, writes menus, orders food, pays bills – and is full of mischief.
Being a chef is a lifestyle – it’s a business. Chefs work nights and holidays when other people have time off. [At a restaurant,] you’re working, but you’re enjoying working. It can be awful if you don’t like it.
What would you say to chefs just starting out – ones who want to start their own restaurant? You can’t do it by yourself – you need a good team of people. I was lucky that my family was in the business – everyone did they what had to do to make it work.
You set up the process where the chef, the staff and you met on Wednesdays to freely discuss the menu and other things about the restaurant. How did that come about? Wednesday seems like a good day – the middle of a seven-day week. It was the best day to get together and brainstorm. I encourage my people to dine around at restaurants in town to see what they liked and didn’t like.
I’ve noticed that the Commander’s Palace menu is constantly evolving, which is unique as this is a city that likes its restaurants’ menus to stay the same. Why do you continue to do so? The kitchen is the place to be a playground and to experiment. We no longer put names on dishes – with a few exceptions.
How did the table in the kitchen – where I would see you sitting with special guests – get started? It first started when I worked at Bourbon Street, and it was so successful, I thought it would work at the restaurant.
We don’t sit there too often [anymore] because there’s too much food! We use that table in the daytime to work with staff.
Anything new for Commander’s? We are opening a Commander’s Palace and the On the Rocks Bar at HarborWalk Village in Destin, Fla. The four youngest Brennans – Ti; Lally; Alex; and Dottie’s son, Brad Brennan – will be in charge. It opens July 9.
True Confession: I have no secrets.