Ella Brennan, creator of nouvelle Creole, turns 90
In this Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, photo, Ella Brennan poses for a photograph during an interview in her home, adjacent to Commander's Palace Restaurant in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Janet McConnaughey, The Associated Press
Published Friday, November 27, 2015 7:26AM EST
NEW ORLEANS -- She dropped out of secretarial school and taught herself the restaurant business, mentored chefs who put Louisiana cooking on the culinary map, is the matriarch of a family that owns nearly 20 restaurants and is credited with creating nouvelle Creole cuisine.
But Ella Brennan, who turns 90 on Friday, didn't do all that by cooking. When she started, she said Nov. 17, "I had never cooked in my life."
"She still hasn't," said her sister, Dottie Brennan.
Her family will celebrate at the home she shares with sister Dottie Brennan.
Commander's Palace and two other restaurants run by Brennan's daughter and niece have marked the month with special menus. At Commander's Palace, one of the city's most illustrious restaurants, there's a $90 tasting menu of "Ella's Favorites" -- six dishes and two drinks.
Through her stewardship of Commander's Palace and her mentorship of chefs across the city, Brennan has become one of the driving forces in the city's culinary scene.
It was at Commander's Palace, the bright blue-and-white restaurant in the Uptown neighbourhood, that Brennan and her late brother, Dick, hired such legends as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, way before they were international celebrities.
She's "the best talent scout," said John T. Edge of the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance, which studies and documents what it describes as the South's diverse food cultres. "She's identified the young talent, oftentimes making unconventional choices that end up having national impact and shaping our idea of American cuisine."
Prudhomme was one such unconventional choice. The Cajun, who died in October, didn't have formal culinary education when she hired him as the first American chef to head a major New Orleans restaurant, shortly after she took over Commander's Palace.
Brennan is also known for mentoring chefs in her kitchen and in others around the city. John Besh never worked for her. But she would come to restaurants where he worked, order champagne and call him to her table to talk.
"She truly wanted to know that we were all growing and that this evolution would continue," he said.
Once he opened his own restaurant, she offered contacts with suppliers and suggestions to promote himself, his restaurants and the city, Besh said.
At Commander's Palace, Brennan held weekly "foodie meetings" to discuss any and all aspects of food. She took family and other staffers on trips to learn from restaurants and stores in New York and abroad. And she'd write notes -- sometimes blunt -- of instruction.
Lagasse said one note he was given read: "When you come to work tomorrow, do me a favour and leave your ego at home."
Brennan started in the restaurant business in high school, working for her oldest brother, Owen E. Brennan -- first at the Old Absinthe House bar and then the Vieux Carre restaurant -- the predecessor to Brennan's. After high school she took some secretarial courses but soon left to work full-time for her brother.
"I kept telling him his restaurant stinks," with food that couldn't compare to their mother's cooking, she said.
Eventually her brother challenged her to do better, and she took over much of the work. Brennan read everything she could find. She talked with vendors of seafood, meat, produce and wine, and with the restaurant's cooks. Her brother sent her around the country and abroad to learn from other restaurateurs.
In 1969, she and younger brother Dick Brennan bought Commander's Palace, then 96 years old. In 1974, they turned their attention exclusively to Commander's Palace after a family feud at the Brennan family's flagship Brennan's Restaurant.
Though she's now retired -- her daughter and a niece run Commander's Palace and some other restaurants -- Brennan remained at Commander's helm for decades, keeping it among the city's elite dining spots.
She also has provided ideas that became classic New Orleans dishes, starting with Bananas Foster, created at the Vieux Carre to honour a friend of her brother's.
Her father suggested bananas because they're always available. Ella remembered a fried banana dessert of her mother's and the chef worked up a banana sauteed in butter, sugar, cinnamon and banana liquor, then flambeed with rum and served on ice cream.
"How in hell it got and stayed where it is, I'll never know," Brennan said.