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Photo by Max Cusimano - New Orleans restaurant legends Leah Chase (left) and Ella Brennan were together for the book release party of Brennan's memoir "Miss Ella of Commander's Palace."

One night last week at Commander's Palace, the two reigning doyennes of New Orleans food shared a table and, for a moment, the spotlight. It got me thinking about the long game, one so long we can't even see it amid the hubbub of what's new, who's ranked where, and which place is getting all the attention.

The setting was a book launch party for “Miss Ella of Commander's Palace,” a new memoir from Ella Brennan written with her daughter Ti Martin. From the head table, Leah Chase of Dooky Chase's Restaurant took the microphone to share her appreciation.

“This lady has been such an inspiration to me,” Chase said. “She’s such an amazing lady.”

“She’s just one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met,” Brennan then said of Chase.

“Here I am between two New Orleans legends,” observed Eric Paulsen, the WWL-TV anchor who was emceeing the event, as he stood beaming between them.

“Well, it’s nice of you to notice,” quipped Brennan, which brought the house down in laughter.

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Photo by Max Cusimano - Leah Chase (right) shares her appreciation for fellow New Orleans restaurant legend Ella Brennan (center) during the book release party for Brennan's memoir "Miss Ella of Commander's Palace."

But of course, the moment couldn’t pass without notice. Seeing these two ladies seated together was like looking upon a Mount Rushmore of Creole cuisine in progress.

And so the question: Who’s next?

Who from the generations following Ella Brennan and Leah Chase will New Orleans look to with such respect and adoration?

We have restaurant industry leaders today who inspire and innovate. But Chase and Brennan aren’t just leaders now. They’re true icons who have shared a calling pursued along different paths.

Chase is 93. Brennan is three years her junior. Each led renowned New Orleans restaurants during an era when a woman in charge was noteworthy on its own. But that was only for starters. As they lived through the last half century of New Orleans history, each influenced that history in different ways.

Food has an outsized grip on the attention and imagination of New Orleans, and those who earn success and fame in its realm can have an influence far beyond the plate.

It’s impossible to say who among those now working in New Orleans cuisine will be so honored in the future. You need a little distance to put that kind of impact in perspective.

But I'll wager those who do will share some of the qualities that Brennan and Chase bring to the table.

Both have used their prominence and the access that their field affords to other movers and shakers to champion causes and stump for their communities. And one on one, the evidence of their everyday inspiration on the lives of others are legend. They have earned roles in the story of their epic city that can’t be tracked by awards, business achievements or rankings.

I can’t predict who New Orleans might be toasting in this way a generation from now. But we should all be on watch for the qualities that contribute to new contenders.

Our food culture, our restaurant industry and our city can sure use more of the stuff that have made Ella Brennan and Leah Chase living legends.

 

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.