NEW ORLEANS — Ella Brennan, who claimed she “never did learn to cook” but became one of the most famous restaurateurs in the country, died Thursday morning at the age of 92.
Brennan, the driving force behind the enormous success of her Garden District restaurant, Commander’s Palace, knew exactly how good food should be prepared — and presented.
In 1992, Commander’s Palace won the James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Service, and in 2009, Ella Brennan won the Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As detailed in the 2016 book she co-wrote with her daughter Ti Martin, “Miss Ella of Commander’s,” Brennan grew up in Depression-era New Orleans and started in the restaurant industry when her older brother Owen asked her to help him do odd jobs at his first restaurant, Vieux Carre.
Over time, Ella Brennan learned every aspect of the business — even staring down a chef who came at her with a butcher knife — to become her brother’s trusted adviser and later the manager at his second restaurant, the original Brennan’s on Royal Street.
In her book, she wrote that she discovered the secrets to fine cuisine in the French recipes of “The Escoffier Cookbook,” which she encouraged her chefs to follow. But her work ethic and her gracious hospitality, winning over waiters and customers alike, was a talent she developed on her own.
“I began to cultivate personnel skills,” she wrote in the book. “You start with mutual trust and respect.”
Her devotion to “sumptuous food with perfect, warm, and professional service” led to her “crowning achievement” — the transformation of the famous restaurant on Washington Avenue.
Commander’s Palace first opened in 1893, and when Ella bought it in 1969, she believed it was “coasting” on its history and time-worn recipes. But she turned Commander’s into one of the most popular restaurants in the nation, with critically acclaimed chefs in the kitchen and plenty of good times in the dining rooms.
“I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she said, so she she gave her diners the band — and more.
A bubbly brunch at Commander’s has become de rigueur for debutantes and bridesmaids, engagement parties, birthday parties, and baby showers. Yet even a diner with no special event to celebrate is made to feel special and celebrated by the staff. Every person at every table is greeted with the same enthusiasm — and served with the same attentiveness — that other restaurants reserve for celebrities.
“The most exciting thing for me,” Brennan wrote in her book, “is to go into a restaurant and see a bunch of people around a table having a spirited but friendly conversation … When people are served a great meal and enjoy the company they’re with, most of the time they never want to leave. They stay and stay.”
At Commander’s Palace, diners do indeed stay, and come back again and again. One of her rules was that things would be done right, or made right. As she wrote in the book, “our rule is that (a complaint) must be handled by sundown that day. There is even a sign hanging in our office: ‘The Sun Shall Not Set on a Guest Complaint.’ ”
Ella was always the boss at Commander’s, but the chefs she hired, including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, admired her intelligence and her passion. Her friendship nurtured their own careers.
But it was Ella — not one of her celebrated chefs — who came up with the idea for one of the most famous desserts in New Orleans.
While she was working for her brother Owen at Brennan’s in 1951, he asked her to come up with an idea for a new dessert for a friend named Richard.
As she tells the story in her book, Ella noticed a bunch of bananas in the restaurant’s kitchen and remembered a simple dish that her mother used to make with bananas in brown sugar and butter. And because she admired the way Antoine’s restaurant entertains guests by flaming its famous baked Alaska, she decided to set her banana sauce on fire with a little rum, cinnamon, and banana liqueur.
“That night at the dinner,” wrote Ella in the book, her brother summoned her to the head table and said, “Ella, would you show Richard what we created to honor him?” “Absolutely,” she replied. “Mr. Foster, here’s our new dessert.”
Ella Brennan stepped away from the daily management of Commander’s Palace in 2004, but her daughter Ti and her niece Lally have followed in her footsteps, bringing the same attention to detail and warmth toward diners. There is always a “BOD,” as the family calls it– a “Brennan on duty” to ensure the service is seamless.
In the last few pages of her book, Ella Brennan wrote that she wasn’t afraid of dying.
“Maybe that’s my Catholic upbringing,” she wrote, “or just the comforting thought that I will get to be with all the people I love one day.”
“Or maybe, it’s just that I’ve had a damn good time!”