Restaurateur Ella Brennan Finally Gets the Documentary She Deserves
A film about the woman behind New Orleans' Commander's Palace is coming to Netflix.
This article originally appeared on Food & Wine
"Mom always wanted New Orleans to be the Paris of America," Ti Martin says of her 91-year-old mother Ella Brennan, the restaurateur behind the famed Commander's Palace. "She was very much on a mission to put New Orleans on the map." But as Brennan would later prove, that didn't mean simply copying the latest trends from Europe or hiring pedigreed French chefs. It meant having an identity as a cultural and culinary hub. And to do that, Brennan would have to buck the food world's preconceived notions of Cajun cuisine and a bit of institutional sexism along the way.
While still a teenager, she was tapped by her older brother Owen to work at his club, The Old Absinthe House, which he had turned into one of the French Quarter's hot spots. "Her mother didn't want her working [there], she called it ‘that dirty old French Quarter,'" Martin tells Food and Wine. "I think Owen definitely saw something in her. This family was and still is very good at realizing we all have certain abilities. And the thing he was great at was cultivating the business, which, in that era, was done late at night. He didn't want to get up early. He just needed somebody to run the damn business. She was a responsible, smart, intellectually curious person. And in my family it was also about trust."
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When the opportunity came to lease the Vieux Carré restaurant space on Bourbon Street, Owen put Ella in charge of the kitchen while he handled the other aspects of the business. Still in her early twenties, the voracious reader and determined Brennan absorbed everything she could from cookbooks and the restaurant's chefs, teaching herself about cuts of meat and developing recipes. When McCall's Magazine food editor Helen McCully caught wind of this dynamo who was successfully ordering around and managing a kitchen full of men unaccustomed to taking orders from a young woman, she took Ella under her wing and introduced her into the New York restaurant scene to rub elbows with the likes of James Beard, Julia Child and the up-and-coming Jacques Pepin. Ella would spend days, she recalls, studying what made places like the legendary 21 Club tick, and bring back those observations to the Big Easy.
With the lease running out on the Bourbon Street location, Owen saw potential in a new location‑—new to the Brennans anyway. It was, in fact an old, neglected edifice needing gut renovation. However, shortly after the new project started, Owen passed away suddenly of a heart attack. When the question came up of whom to put in charge, Ella was the natural choice despite not being the third youngest of the five surviving siblings.
"We never had then and we don't have now any titles in our company. If someone makes us put it down on a document, sure. But we all do what we're good at, and you encourage that person to keep gaining that expertise. When it came to the leader, she just led. It never was a question," Martin explains.
But while the family was sure Ella was the right person to take on the new Brennan's, not everyone shared that conviction. The bank pulled its loan, citing a lack of confidence in a female-run restaurant. Even that setback wouldn't deter Brennan from keeping the business running though. "It definitely was an ‘I'll show you!' moment," Martin says. "She grew up in the Depression, her father was a very hardworking guy. She kinda had the most of that particular trait… She just had come out of the chute that way."
The Brennans cobbled together loans and second mortgages form whoever they could. On May 30th, 1956, lunch began at the original Bourbon street location on a rainy afternoon. During the meal, the customers, staff and chefs picked up anything that wasn't nailed down and, accompanied by a jazz band, of course, marched down the street to the new location on Royal Street to finish the meal. It was a fitting New Orleans transition and kickstarted a boom of popularity and prosperity for Brennan's.
The restaurant's book "Breakfast at Brennan's" brought decadent French egg dishes and multi-course menus to, what was at the time, an overlooked meal (which, no doubt had a profound effect on today's brunch scene). The impact of the Brennan dynasty can be seen in restaurants around the country now from their invention of bananas Foster to their introduction of breakfast cocktails to their early adoption of American wines.
Eventually an internal dispute with Owen's widow led to Ella Brennan being dismissed from the family's eponymous restaurant only to then take over another iconic (but, at the time, dilapidated) institution, Commander's Palace. The transition wasn't easy either, but even in what was mostly a man's game, Ella had proved herself more than capable of helming the more-than-a-century old restaurant.
"Of course it was different but we didn't know any different. She would say ‘I never really thought about it. I just did what I had to do,'" Martin tells Food & Wine. "It really didn't matter whether it was a restaurant or a railroad or a bank, she was going to lead. It's just who she is. I'm just happy for the food world it was the food world."
At Commander's, she shepherded the careers of chefs like Paul Prudhomme, a young chef from Cajun country whose cuisine would never have been considered elite enough for most well-respected kitchens at the time, but who would become an ambassador for bayou flavors with his TV-ready persona, eventually sending his premixed Magic Seasoning Blends to all corners of the country.
Following in Prudhomme's footsteps would be another big personality, Emeril Lagasse, who not only continued to elevate the flavors and bring attention to the kitchen, but would also become one of the first star chefs on the Food Network. Lagasse was followed by the late Jamie Shannon, during whose tenure Commander's Palace garnered its first James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant in 2009.
Now retired, Ella Brennan lives next door to Commander's Palace while her daughter and niece oversee operations. But her drive for excellence is still very much a part of the business. "She tells me all the time But as anyone watching the documentary will see, behind that fame is a relentlessly strive for excellence. "She tells me on a regular basis we've got the worst restaurant in America next door," Martin jokes. "She believes you're supposed to be everything you're capable of and if you're not, you're not going to be happy."
The feature-length documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table includes interviews with Brennan, her family, Lagasse, Prudhomme, Danny Meyer, Jeremiah Tower, Daniel Boulud, current Commander's head chef Tory McPhail, and more, and will be streaming on Netflix starting May 1st.