The world knew Ella Brennan as the queen of a New Orleans dining empire that played a major role in bringing Creole cuisine to the forefront of the American restaurant industry. But a new memoir and documentary shows that Ella’s success wasn’t just about the food, but a revolution in the whole American dining experience.
“The whole point when someone walks in the front door of our restaurant as a customer is they don’t feel like a customer” Ella said. “They have to feel welcome. They have to feel at home. They have to feel cared for”
For Ella, the restaurant business wasn’t just a business, but a way of life—a life that is well chronicled in the memoir Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace (Gibbs-Smith, 2016) and documentary Commanding the Table.
The book tells about her life as she grew up in Great Depression-era and postwar New Orleans and became one of the most influential restaurateurs in American history. The documentary features interviews from current and former chefs, family, and friends, offering a glimpse into the life of a woman whose competitive drive and revolutionary vision helped bring Commander’s Palace to soaring levels of success.
“This is the great American story—it just doesn’t have a tragic ending. It has a happy ending,” says Ti Martin, Ella’s daughter, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace, and co-author of Miss Ella.
At 18 years old, Ella went to work at her brother Owen’s French Quarter bar and subsequently the restaurant known today as Brennan’s. It was there that Ella began to learn what it took to make a restaurant successful, soaking up as much knowledge as she could and using it to overhaul the menu and service standards.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Ella said. “My brother…pushed me and pushed me and pushed me, and there I was in the restaurant business, learning very much from the people I was working with.”
When she and her siblings took over Commander’s Palace in 1974, Ella went straight to work to cement its place among the ranks of New Orleans’ finest restaurants. At a time when the world was interested in nouvelle cuisine, Ella believed that the food Louisianans were cooking at home was often better than what they could find in most restaurants in New Orleans.
She brought in a young Paul Prudhomme and collaborated closely with him to introduce the rest of the world to Louisiana’s cuisine, elevating it to what is now known as “Haute Creole” and continually updating the menu to keep things fresh.
“That idea that we’re going to constantly evolve, I think, was one of the biggest things that they did, and that really made Mom and everybody she was working with a major part of the modern American food movement. And it really pushed New Orleans forward” Ti says.
Ti adds that while her mother is credited with changing the way America eats, what she hopes people take away from the book and movie is the emphasis Ella put on hospitality. “It really is one of the most important things she did” Ti says.
In the memoir, Ella says that people today are interested in buying experiences rather than things, and that she thinks Commander’s Palace has been onto that notion for a long time.
Reflecting on her storied career and incredible success at Commander’s Palace, Ella admitted that while she worked tirelessly to provide customers with an impeccable dining experience, she enjoyed it.
“The most important thing is we never thought of it as work,” Ella said. “It was a way of life. It was fun. If you have to work for a living, it’s a nice way to do it.”
For more information about the Ella Brennan documentary, visit ellabrennanmovie.com.