The word "legend" has become so over-used it has lost much of its meaning, but Ella Brennan genuinely deserves that accolade. As matriarch of Commander's Palace restaurant, she blazed a trail for herself and other women in a field long dominated by men — and then dominated that field herself by revolutionizing New Orleans and American cuisine.
She did it with a unique combination of grit, "stick-to-it-iveness," authenticity, generosity and down-home hospitality. Ella didn't just leave her mark on the local and national restaurant scenes; she changed the landscape entirely.
"Miss Ella" died May 31 at the age of 92. She was truly one of a kind.
I first met Ella in the 1980s, thanks to my wife Margo, who grew up knowing Ella's children, nieces and nephews. In addition to her passion for hospitality, Ella also had a passion for civic engagement and politics. We hit it off immediately. Over the years, I was privileged to spend many memorable hours with her, getting equal measures of great food and firm opinions. She made her case in a political discussion with the same zeal she brought to hosting diners at Commander's Palace.
The rest of New Orleans got a dose of her political leanings in the 1990s when then-Gov. Edwin Edwards proposed a land-based casino in New Orleans. Ella thought it was a terrible idea that would do more harm than good. She didn't just speak out; she put her money — a considerable amount of it, too — into efforts to convince lawmakers and voters not to bring casino gambling to New Orleans.
She lost that fight, but she never regretted it. Nor did she look back on it with any bitterness. She was always one to look forward, not backward.
One of my favorite memories of Ella involves another of her passions — promoting women in the business world — as well as her incredible generosity. When Margo was named publisher of Gambit in June 1987, I phoned Ella to ask about renting a room at Commander's Palace for an announcement party. When I told her the purpose of the party, she said sharply, "No, you cannot rent a room."
The phone went silent for a beat, and I was speechless. Then she said, in her hallmark tone that was both loving and stern, "That's because I'm going to host this party at my home — I'm so proud of Margo! And don't you dare ask me for a bill. Just tell me how many people are coming."
Ella's home, located on Coliseum Street adjacent to Commander's, was the site of many extraordinary gatherings. To Ella, entertaining in her home was an extension of her restaurant — and herself.
"I think my legacy is being absolutely, extremely happy in what I do every day. That's the truth," she told The Advocate in 2015. "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?"
Not nearly as lucky as we who knew and loved you, Ella. So long, sweet friend.