I’ve spent most of my career in public relations and communications, but almost everything I learned was from restaurateur Ella Brennan. Her recent passing brought back fond memories and a few life lessons.
My first job after college in 1990 was as the assistant maître d' at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where I was in a management training program. Emeril Lagasse was the chef, and it was a special time when he was coming into his own before becoming the chef of his own empire. Ella Brennan, or Hurricane Ella as she could be known, was the matriarch of the restaurant. Commander’s Palace had just won the James Beard Award for Best Restaurant of the Year. Ella would go on to win Restaurateur of the Year.
I was very proud at my station at the front door of one of the most classic and elegant restaurants in the world, sitting timeless among the old oaks in the historic Garden District. In the early 1990s, the corner table in the Garden Room was the most requested tables in the country. And I was the one answering the phone.
Ella took me under her wing. One night, she said to me, “Son, I’m going to teach you how to work a room.” And she did. I followed and learned as she seamlessly greeted tables of old friends and out-of-towners alike.
She showed me that there was a perfect balance of how to approach a table, being just friendly enough to make them feel welcome without being intrusive. Guests want to enjoy their meal while also feeling welcomed — and maybe just a little special.
I learned that the conversation at a table requires a heightened sense of situational awareness — with maybe dash of quiet confidence. You are a conductor orchestrating a fine dining experience, which transcends just a nice plate of food. The interaction at a table is a razor-thin edge between just the right amount of meet-and-greet: Not too little, not too much.
Sometimes our guests were rock stars like Billy Joel, or Ms. Jenny Blow from the Marigny, or the world’s largest arms dealer. There were senators, celebrities, royalty, tourists from Oshkosh, bankers from Chicago, writers from New York and everyone else in between.
Ella gave me my first lesson in using communications to control the environment and it’s been a key skill in my career in public relations and as a spokesman.
I learned that the situational awareness of talking to a table applies as well to any other interaction with people in life. From meetings, friends, sports, to even buying a sandwich.
The experience at Commander’s Palace is a fundamental communications exercise. Our perspective depends upon where we sit and what our interests are at a given moment. The interactions are always dynamic and never static. No table is ever the same. I could be a welcoming friend or an annoying presence with the flip of a sentence.
In the outstanding documentary "Commanding the Table," Ella describes that Commander’s Palace isn’t just a restaurant, it is a grand metaphor for how you should treat people in life — and how you would want to be treated if you were a stranger. With respect and graciousness; like you were welcoming a friend or a traveler into your own home.
As I tell my kids, everyone should have the experience of working in a restaurant. It teaches organization, humility, timing, teamwork, problem-solving, but most of all, service to others. I put those skills to use, not just in communications, but when I swam 25 miles across Lake Pontchartrain.
I will always remember those special years in New Orleans with fondness and gratitude. I met many great friends who are still close today. Just this spring we returned for a five and a half-hour “reunion” lunch with 11 courses expertly supervised by Chef Tory McPhail.
Ella Brennan not only gave me a great gift in learning how to “work a room,” but she gave me something much more important: She believed in me.
Matthew Moseley is a partner and chief strategy officer at Dovetail Solutions in Boulder, Colorado. This is excerpted from his forthcoming book, "Ignition: Communication and Controlling Your Environment."