Doyenne of New Or­leans din­ing scene turns 90

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

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 neigh­bor­hood, 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 fa­vor 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.—AP

In this photo, Ella Bren­nan, cen­ter, laughs as she poses for a photo with daugh­ter Ti Ade­laide Martin, right, Lally Bren­nan, sis­ter Dot­tie Bren­nan, sec­ond left, and Com­man­der’s Palace ex­ec­u­tive chef Tory McPhail, left, at her home adjacent to the restau­rant in New Or­leans.—AP

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