“Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace: “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through” by Ella Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin, Gibbs Smith, $27.99, 240 pages, hardcover
The amazing New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan doesn’t cook, but she sure knows how to develop and operate top-notch restaurants — and how to tell a wonderful story. Which is exactly what she does in her memoir, “Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace: ‘I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.’"
Anyone considering going into the restaurant business first needs to read Brennan’s memoir. Co-written by her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin, with help from Jerry Shriver, the memoir shares the behind-the-scene story of how Brennan’s on Royal Street, Commander’s Palace and all the other Brennan-operated restaurants came to be. Success didn’t come easy. It took lots of hard work, care and the support of a large Irish family.
In the book’s foreword, Cokie Roberts notes the memoir “is, in essence, a history of fine dining in America written by one of the people universally recognized in the world of restaurateurs who brought about the revolution that taught many in this country what good food and service is all about. It’s fair to say that Ella Brennan changed the way Americans relate to food as much as Julia Child did.”
Brennan, born in New Orleans during the Great Depression, had no formal training in the restaurant business. She was still a teen when in 1943 she went to help run the Old Absinthe House, her oldest brother Owen’s French Quarter saloon. Three years later, her big brother and her father bought the restaurant across the street, the Vieux Carré, and asked her to help manage it. She knew nothing about running a restaurant, she writes, “and would have to figure it out for myself. I’d like to think that Owen saw some brains and energy in his little sister, or maybe he just needed someone in a pinch so that he could focus on his bar.”
She says she did know the restaurant wasn’t very good, and she did know good home cooking. (Her mother was “an extraordinarily good cook.”) When she complained to Owen, “Your restaurant stinks!” he told her to fix it. “And so my career as a restaurateur was launched,” she recalls. She was just shy of 21.
In “Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace,” Ella Brennan and Ti Martin tell about the triumphs and heartaches of working in the hospitality industry, the laughter and tears their family and friends have shared.
Readers will learn about the BOD or Brennan on Duty rule, which means a Brennan family member must always be at a restaurant; how family members mortgaged their homes to finance Brennan’s when the bank withdrew its loan after Owen Brennan died shortly before the restaurant was to open; how bananas Foster came about; and how she hired Emeril Lagasse when Paul Prudhomme left Commander’s Palace to open his own restaurant.
The book includes numerous black-and-white photographs and illustrations.
After reading “Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace,” one will truly appreciate the hard work that goes into any good restaurant, and what Ella Brennan has done for fine dining in Louisiana.
Cheramie Sonnier is a food writer and columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter, @CheramieSonnier.