Ella Brennan has an expression she uses to describe her favorite chefs, especially those she worked with closely at Commander’s Palace.
“They have magic in their hands,” she says, referring to their ability to transform ingredients into culinary gold.
Paul Prudhomme and Jamie Shannon had it, Emeril Lagasse has it, and so does Tory McPhail, the current executive chef at her family’s landmark restaurant.
But many believe Brennan has a magic touch herself, and one that’s just as transformative. It’s the way she encourages, inspires and even compels people to strive for excellence.
“You have to make people feel like they’re valued,” Brennan said during a recent interview at her Garden District home. “If they feel that, they’ll do their best. And what you want from people is their best, whatever that is for them.”
Brennan, the matriarch of the most influential restaurant family in New Orleans, will mark her 90th birthday on Nov. 27. For the entire month, Commander’s Palace and its sister restaurants, Café Adelaide and SoBou, are honoring her with special tributes on their menus and in their dining rooms.
And there is much to celebrate in Brennan’s career, which has profoundly impacted the culinary life of New Orleans and influenced the restaurant culture across the country.
“There just aren’t many people who have made a such a difference in bringing American cuisine to where it stands today,” said Lagasse, who credits Brennan not just with fostering his culinary talent early on but with shaping the way he built his own restaurant empire.
Brennan helped put New Orleans on the map as a modern culinary destination and nurtured the notion of nouvelle Creole cuisine. She pioneered countless innovations in restaurant service and management. She extended and redefined the Brennan family heritage in the hospitality business, which now branches through more than a dozen major restaurants in New Orleans alone.
That is Ella Brennan’s legacy writ large. Along the way, there also were countless smaller examples of her impact on the people who worked for her. They still carry the imprint of her uniquely personal, direct and persistent approach to mentoring, and they continue to pass it on themselves, expanding the ripples of her influence ever wider.
“There’s not a day when I’m operating my restaurants that I don’t think of the time I was there,” said Xavier Teixido, who was a manager at Commander’s Palace from 1981 to 1984.
Teixido now runs three restaurants in Wilmington, Delaware, through his company Harry’s Hospitality Group, and he’s a past chairman of the National Restaurant Association. His said his years at Commander’s Palace were formative, calling the restaurant “my grad school.”
“It’s impossible to have spent any time there with her without picking up some of that DNA,” he said. “She was just masterful at crafting people to reach their potential.”
A master mentor
For Brennan, mentoring has been a deliberate effort, though not a formulaic one. Never based on maxims or a regimented program, it instead flowed from her keen interest in the people around her.
One way she applied it was by allowing and, in many cases, mandating that those working for her take an active role in the decisions shaping her restaurants.
“She and my dad were a generation ahead in the idea of empowering your people and including your people,” said restaurateur Dickie Brennan, whose father, the late Dick Brennan Sr., was Ella’s brother and partner in Commander’s Palace. “That’s how they got the best out of people, and that’s why they have the alumni they do.”
Another way Ella Brennan mentors is by passing on her knowledge. She reads voraciously and shares what she learns liberally, sending out a tide of articles and dog-eared books she deems of interest to those on her ever-growing list of protégés.
And, perhaps most of all, she always has mentored by committing herself to intensive face time, even amid the hurly-burly of running a large, busy restaurant.
“We would sit down every Saturday, maybe for 30 minutes or maybe for two hours, and just talk about food,” Lagasse said. “I’d bring books, she’d bring books, sometimes all marked up, and we’d just talk about food and wine and cocktails, and what we were doing to move the restaurant forward and keep it fresh.”
Brennan dubbed these sit-downs her “foodie meetings,” which she and her brother conducted with all their chefs. It was as much about developing talent as developing the menu.
“She didn’t just hand over the wand and say, ‘Change what you want,’ ” Lagasse said. “I had to prove myself before I could get a little window on the menu.”
Jorge Henriquez, now director of operations for the Dickie Brennan and Co. restaurant group, started at Commander’s Palace as a kitchen manager in 1992. He remembers how Ella Brennan gave him books on management and communication, and later would grill him on their lessons.
“I came in as a relatively young guy, thinking, ‘What could I contribute to a place like this?’ ” Henriquez said. “But she was always very open-minded with people. Her approach was: ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel, but if you can do something better, go ahead and show me, and we’ll use it.’ ”
The heart of a restaurant
Brennan is now officially retired, having gradually, in some cases grudgingly, handed over the reins of Commander’s Palace to her daughter Ti Martin and her niece Lally Brennan.
But she is never far from the restaurant. She and her sister, Dottie Brennan, live in the stately Coliseum Street home that is technically next door to Commander’s Palace but in practice feels like an extension of the restaurant.
A garden path leads from the Commander’s Palace patio through Brennan’s own backyard. From an armchair in her sun room, she can see waiters crisscross this path all day en route to a break area behind the garden, and she can watch as the chefs gather for outdoor, pre-service meetings, a brigade of white chef’s toques bobbing amid the dark green palmettos. She often pops her head out the door to share some advice with them.
She and Dottie Brennan live here within a swirl of relatives and restaurant people, who can feel like one and the same.
When their executive chef McPhail visits, he instinctively slips off his kitchen clogs at the door, padding around in socks as Ella Brennan’s poodle, Tallulah, playfully circles him.
Brennan dines at the restaurant frequently, sampling McPhail’s latest dishes and giving him unedited feedback wherever she detects a shortcoming. Fiercely proud of Commander’s Palace, she also can be its harshest critic.
“She’s something to be reckoned with,” McPhail said. “Her words have gravity to them.”
That was the case throughout her career, and it’s still part of her persona.
“When I come home, that’s the worst restaurant in the world,” said Martin, sitting in her mother’s house and jutting a thumb toward Commander’s Palace. “She has noticed so many problems, so many flaws. It’s drinking from a fire hose with Mom, all the time.”
But Martin said she recognizes that’s part of how her mother “pushes people to grow.”
“She’s the type who makes you believe you can do more than you thought you could because you don’t want to let her down,” Martin said.
A trial by fire
Brennan’s own education in the restaurant business was of the sink-or-swim variety. Her brother, Owen Brennan, drafted her into a nascent family business while she was still a teenager, tasking her to run his first restaurant, called the Vieux Carre.
She buried herself in books and planted herself by the side of chefs, including Paul Blangé, who would become the legendary first chef at Brennan’s Restaurant.
“I would sit there and ask him, and he would give me everything he could give me,” Brennan said. “He’d show me how to butcher a tenderloin, how to fillet a fish. Then he’d give me the invoice and say, ‘Here’s what it cost us; here’s what we have to get out of it.’ ”
In the early 1950s, she and sister Adelaide set out on restaurant research missions to Europe, New York and San Francisco. She learned a great deal, she said, though often about what not to do. If she thought a restaurant was too showy, too stiff or too intimidating, she knew it wouldn’t fly in New Orleans, not at the type of restaurant she wanted to run.
The whole family was then building up to expand from the Vieux Carre restaurant to a much larger, grander building — a onetime bank on Royal Street, the present-day Brennan’s Restaurant.
“That was Owen’s dream,” Brennan said. “He always said he wanted to have a place that when people think of a New Orleans restaurant, that’s what they think of.”
On the eve of opening, however, Owen Brennan died from a heart attack at age 45. Ella Brennan was in awe of her older brother and considered him her mentor. Now she had to step into his shoes, rallying her siblings and calling in every favor she could from friends and business associates to open the doors at Brennan’s.
“We had no choice,” she said. “We had to take care of ourselves. We weren’t doctors or lawyers. Our business was a restaurant. We had to make this work.”
It did work, and Brennan’s earned a place among the top restaurants of its era. But a dispute arose among the family over the future of the business. Some wanted to expand to other cities; others opposed the idea. It formed a wedge that grew into a split, which proved long-lived.
One side kept Brennan’s Restaurant; the other, including Ella Brennan, went to Commander’s Palace in 1974, taking over management of what was then a highly traditional Creole restaurant.
“When we left Brennan’s, what were we going to do?” she said. “Obviously, we were going to try to run the best restaurant we could. That’s how it worked out.”
‘Intensity, attention to detail’
Chefs and others who worked with Brennan credit her success to her focus on operational details, her eagle-eyed perceptiveness and her forthright approach with customers and staff.
Not the type to rant and rave, she could instead communicate an entire tirade of disapproval with a glance, an arched eyebrow or a single word.
When Lagasse once lost his cool in the kitchen, he recalls, Brennan simply handed him a note, telling him to read it after work.
“Of course, I had to read it right then,” Lagasse said. “It said, ‘Do me a favor and leave your ego at home.’ It made me realize I didn’t have to operate like this. I can operate by being a leader, by being a teacher.”
Emanuel “E-Man” Loubier, who spent a decade in the Commander’s Palace kitchen before opening his own Dante’s Kitchen in 2000, remembers a pair of stools set up in the kitchen, where Ella and Dottie Brennan would establish themselves during the dinner rush.
“They’d sit there and watch every move in the kitchen. Their mantra was: ‘Pay attention, taste everything, think of the customer in anything you’re doing.’ She was always on it,” Loubier said. “She was the type to say, ‘You’re too smart to do something that stupid.’ It was tough love.”
For her part, Ella Brennan saw those stools in the kitchen as box seats to her favorite show.
“People asked us why we’d sit in the kitchen,” she said. “Well, don’t you think I get an absolute charge out of watching professionals do what they do at that level? It’s like going to the ballet. I love watching a kitchen like that in action.”
Her focus on details extended well beyond the kitchen. Stan Lawson was general manager at Commander’s Palace for a five-year stretch beginning in the late 1970s and worked closely with Brennan and her family as they instituted a slew of restaurant innovations, from food runners to expedite service across the huge restaurant to a semi-secret pass code that regulars could use to let themselves in through the patio on busy nights.
“Intensity, attention to detail — that’s what I learned from Ms. Ella,” said Lawson, who is now general manager of the Capitol Hill Club, a private club in Washington, D.C., for Republican lawmakers and their supporters. “It’s the whole sense of how to create an institution that really gets into people’s minds and hearts, where people don’t just recommend you for the food or service but for the entire experience.”
An arbiter of taste, Brennan had no time for cynics or snobs, and she instilled in her family and her managers the value of bringing others up as you pursue high standards.
“She has this great mind for business and this incredible generosity of spirit,” former employee Kate Ezell said.
Now an education consultant in Nashville, Tennessee, Ezell’s first job out of college in 1975 was on the Commander’s Palace reservations desk. She rose through the restaurant’s ranks for four years before shifting careers, but she still carries that early influence with her.
“She was always about pursuing excellence, but it was never at your expense. It was the idea that if she knew something and she could share it with you, and we’re working together, then it’s better for everyone,” she said. “That’s always the way I want to work with people now.”
A legacy in food
In retirement, Brennan still pursues many of the same pleasures and compulsions that marked her career.
She burns through books and articles and still distributes them widely — stuffing some in the chefs’ mailboxes at Commander’s Palace, compiling a weekly shopping bagful for her daughter, putting some aside for a granddaughter who expressed interest in voting in her first presidential election next year.
“It’s part of mentoring,” she said. “You have to show people what the world is about. If you’ve learned something and you believe in something, you have to share that with people.”
Chefs and restaurateurs still visit, and she still has plenty of advice for them. She savors a Sazerac in the evening and adores wine, all the while marveling at her own longevity.
“I’m the oldest living Brennan ever, and let me tell you, that’s a surprise when your brother dies at 45,” she said.
She loves to talk about food, whether it’s recalling the roasted pork and veal daube her mother made at home in the 1930s, professing her lifelong weakness for bologna sandwiches or quizzing McPhail about the new type of Gulf oysters he’s added to the menu.
While the tributes roll in for her 90th birthday, she has her own way of understanding her legacy.
“I think my legacy is being absolutely, extremely happy in what I do every day. That’s the truth,” she said. “I’m the luckiest person in the world to have lived in New Orleans and lived among so many characters all my life. I mean, when you look back at it, how lucky can you be?”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.