New Orleans Restaurateur Ella Brennan is facing a milestone head-on. After 41 years at the helm of the Crescent City’s grande dame of Creole cuisine, the first lady of New Orleans food is turning 90 this month. The Commander’s Family of Restaurants (including Commander’s Palace and SoBou) is celebrating with special menus and drinks in honor of Ella’s favorites. We sat down with daughter Ti Martin and niece Lally Brennan, co-proprietors of Commander’s Palace, to talk about Ella’s career and her legacy at the famous Creole restaurant.
What’s it been like working alongside Ella all these years?
Lally: It’s been amazing, and it’s been fun. I’ve learned so very much from her. I feel so blessed and lucky. She’s brilliant, has an amazing sense of humor, is kind, loving, sensitive, smart as a whip, and extremely well read. So when you spend your days with someone like that, you can’t help but learn interesting things.
We know Ella was big on mentoring. What are some of the ways she mentored you growing up?
Ti: I don’t know what normal girls talk to their mothers about, but we talk about restaurants, food, and the world. But mostly restaurants and food. Last night I was over there doing exactly that. She’s always giving us reading material. She’s always pushing us to get better, to push forward. She says, “Did you hear about this?” or “I read about that…” or “Maybe we could try this?” It’s constant, and it makes you feel like you want to do better every day.
Lally: One thing I learned from Ella early on was the importance of empowering yourself. She taught me how important it was to be able to take care of yourself, especially as a woman, because you never know what your future is going to hold. We all have to work, so make sure you find something you love. No matter what path your life takes, you want to be self-confident and able to take care of yourself.
What are some of your favorite memories of growing up with Ella?
Ti: We lived at Second and Prytania, so it was near the restaurants and she was always throwing parties. I remember one day I came home from school and Susan Hayward was in the house. Another night it was Jane Russell. Sometimes Rock Hudson would be there. They’d come in and the music would get going and I’d be doing my calculus homework and have to say “Hey, can you keep it down out there!?” But the parties, when they were planned, were extremely well done.
Lally: You’d open the refrigerator at Ella’s and all you could find was Champagne and foie gras. It wasn’t all celebrities though; there was a lot of work going on. The house was open to the restaurant industry all the time, just trying to promote it and spread good will within the industry. When Mr. B’s opened, the restaurant had the first all-American wine list in the city, so we had a lot of wine people around then. It was always business mixed with fun.
What are some of your most memorable moments around the table with Ella?
Lally: When we travel and go to different cities and we map out 12 to 15 restaurants and just to go in and check them out, look at their menu, maybe order an appetizer or a soda water, and maybe by the seventh one we’ll have a glass of wine. By the last one we’re eating. It’s a fun way to spend an evening learning and enjoying each other’s company.
Ti: One of Ella’s dear friends is Ron Thompson, and he’s a really nice singer. So she’s always making him sing for his supper. She loves old show tunes. It’s always fun.
Lally: Aunt Ella’s so smart that you can talk about just about anything with her at the table. She loves politics, and what I respect so much about her is she can talk to someone about what they think, and even if she doesn’t agree, she’s interested in hearing what they have to say.
How has Ella’s role changed over time?
Ti: She ran the restaurant for many years. Now she and my Aunt Dottie live next door, so she’s very much a part of the restaurant. Chef Tory McPhail and the other cooks go over there and have meetings. She comes to Commander’s about once every two weeks for dinner but she eats the food every day.
What advice do you think she would give an entrepreneur on running a successful restaurant?
Ti: A lot of people would say “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Well, her motto is “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.” We really believe in striving to make all of our restaurants better every day. And it really is all about the people. We work together with trust and respect. When you work one-on-one with everyone and you care about them, that’s when you develop a team. That’s what a restaurant is; it’s a big collaboration.
Tell us a little bit about what’s on Ella’s Birthday Menu at Commander’s Palace?
Ti: Chef Tory McPhail created the Oyster Absinthe Dome and Ella just loves it. Sometimes we can’t get her to eat anything else. The Five-Hour Egg is a really interesting dish; it turns out to be the consistency of flan and has a wonderful flavor.
She loves Scotch drinks in general, so that’s where the Blood and Sand cocktail came from. Stuffed flounder, duck, and Crepes Suzette are some of her favorite things, so we included those. They’re all very evolved dishes; they’re not something that was on the menu 40 years ago. And the Irish Coffee is because we’re Irish, and we love all those festive things!
What has been Ella’s greatest influence on Commander’s Palace?
Ti: She says, “We may hold the keys to Commander’s Palace, but it belongs to New Orleans.” We’ve all been trying to make Commander’s the ultimate neighborhood restaurant and the favorite local restaurant. We want Commander’s to be a place New Orleans can be proud of. That’s the goal. And that’s how we treat it.
photos courtesy of Commander’s Palace