Although she could not cook, Miss Brennan, as she preferred to be known, was a powerful force in the New Orleans restaurant business, first at Brennan’s in the French Quarter and later at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District.
“I’ve got to tell you,” she wrote in 2016 autobiography, “Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace” (2016), “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.”
She modernized menus and restaurant service at Commander’s Palace, her flagship, and helped launch the careers of such renowned chefs as Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Frank Brigtsen and Tory McPhail.
“She can’t really boil water,” Lagasse said in 2015. But, he added, “She’s one of the greatest restaurateurs I’ve ever met. She has an incredible palate and an even more incredible mind. And she just has this way with people, of leading and showing the way of exceptional hospitality.”
Miss Brennan had weekly meetings with her staff and often sat down with her chefs, thumbing through cookbooks and looking for new ideas for the menu, which featured dishes from Louisiana. She kept a close eye on staff members at every level.
Lagasse recalled a note he received during his early years at Commander’s Palace: “When you come to work tomorrow, do me a favor and leave your ego at home.”
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One of Miss Brennan’s mottoes was “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.”
She began working in restaurants in the 1940s, when she joined her brother, Owen Brennan, in managing the Vieux Carre Restaurant on Bourbon Street. When she complained that the menu was too bland, her brother said, “You think you’re so smart? Well, go fix it, smarty pants,” as she wrote in her memoir. “My career as a restaurateur was launched.”
She had the menu printed in English instead of French, added local Creole items and became an authority on wine.
In 1954, she and her brother bought an 18th-century building on Royal Street in the French Quarter, but before the new Brennan’s Restaurant could open, Owen Brennan died of a heart attack. Miss Brennan carried on with other family members, making the restaurant a New Orleans landmark.
In 1969, she and a sister, Adelaide Brennan, bought a run-down eatery called Commander’s Palace. Four years later, Miss Brennan was ousted from her family’s namesake restaurant after a dispute with her brother’s widow. She and her sister and other family members concentrated on remaking Commander’s Palace and built it into one of the country’s most-renowned restaurants. Her branch of the Brennan family now operates 14 restaurants in New Orleans, Houston and California.
Commander’s Palace has received six Wine Spectator Grand Awards and six James Beard Awards, considered the Oscars of the food world. In 2009, Miss Brennan received a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.
Miss Brennan, who was the divorced mother of two children, lived next door to Commander’s Palace with a sister, Dottie Brennan. Waiters regularly brought dishes from the kitchen for her to sample.
“She has had this lifelong understanding of the importance of food in our lives and the importance of dining as an American institution,” food writer John T. Edge told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “In ways both profound and subtle, her work has permeated throughout American culture. Her work began in New Orleans, but it has spread throughout the nation, and we owe her a great debt for that.”
Ella Brennan was born Nov. 27, 1925, in New Orleans, the fourth of six children. Her father was a shipyard supervisor, her mother a renowned home cook whose sauteed banana dessert was a forerunner of bananas Foster, a staple at Brennan’s Restaurant.
Her marriage to Paul Martin ended in divorce. Survivors include two children; her sister; and two grandchildren.
After she was fired from the restaurant she helped found, Miss Brennan refused to enter Brennan’s for 40 years. She came back only in 2014, after a nephew had bought the bankrupt restaurant at a sheriff’s auction.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, Commander’s Palace sustained considerable damage. Rebuilding the restaurant took more than a year and cost $6.5 million.
When Commander’s Palace reopened in 2006, the restaurant’s four owners — Miss Brennan; her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin; her sister, Dottie Brennan; and her niece, Lally Brennan — were greeted with cheers and hugs when they walked through the dining room.
“We never even paused to consider not coming back,” Miss Brennan said in her memoir, co-written with her daughter. “No way. Hell no. New Orleans is our town, and she needed us as much as we needed her.”
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