Ella Brennan, 90, evidenced the wit and style that has made her a legendary New Orleans restaurateur at a coming-out party this week for her new memoir.
“I didn’t want to do the whole damn thing,” Brennan quipped with characteristic self-effacement about her new book, Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace: I Don’t Want a Restaurant Where a Jazz Band Can’t Come Marching Through.
The requisite jazz band was on hand for the event at Commander’s Palace, where family, friends and press had gathered to pay homage to the matriarch of a family restaurant empire that now numbers more than a dozen prominent dining establishments.
“She’s one of the funniest damn women I know,” said food writer and cookbook author Marcelle Bienvenue, who reminisced about “a lot of Sazeracs in the patio” shared with her friend. She also remembered advising Miss Ella not to hire Paul Prudhomme, because “he’s from Acadiana and no one will eat his food.” History, of course, proved her wrong.
“This lady is unbelievable,” said Leah Chase, 93, the city’s other reigning restaurant matriarch. “She came up working the hard way and I always admired her for that. I remember one day a news writer knocked me down. And she came into my kitchen that morning and said, ‘They will not do this to you.’ She really helped me along. And you never forget the people who helped you along. I have loved this lady all of my life, and I will try to do well in the business just to make her proud of me.”
“She puts me to shame with with the things she has done for this community,” Brennan protested in turn.
Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace was “years in the hoping,” said literary agent Judith Weber. “I was taken with her warmth, her humor, her wisdom. There was so much to share.”
The book is a collaborative effort of Brennan and her daughter and now co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace, Ti Adelaide Martin. Former USA Today writer Jerry Shriver helped pen the product, calling it “the highlight of my career.” He spent two years researching the book and “15 to 20 hours one on one with Ella – wonderful, intimate conversations, cultured conversations.”
“Jerry got incredibly good at taking our long and winding interviews and notes and fashioning them into organized and coherent passages and chapters whilst channeling Mom in a scary spot-on way,” writes Martin in the book’s introduction.
The memoir retraces Brennan’s life from her early years, when, at 18, she began handling the accounting for her brother’s Bourbon Street bar, through the acquisition of Brennan’s and on to Commander’s Palace, earning six James Beard Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award along the way.
“In the 1950s and ‘60s, she believed that America should get to know who is in the kitchen,” said Martin. “She dreamt that New Orleans should become the Paris of America and that hospitality is a feeling that comes from a culture. Believe me, if she were a coach she could take her team and beat your team any day. Or she could take your team and beat her team any day.”
Other family members chimed in with memories as well. Alex Brennan Martin, Brennan’s son, confided that, after nights on the town, he and little sister Ti had to “come in and kiss Mom on the cheek to let her know we were OK. And so she could smell our breath.” In a house where he was the only male (including the dogs), “she taught me how to curse.”
“I was the luckiest girl in the world to grow up in this restaurant family,” added niece Lally Brennan. “I learned how to enjoy what I do everyday. We don’t have jobs; we have lifestyles.”
Ella, said her younger sister Dottie Brennan, “is the person who makes this family what it is. She is the kindest, most generous person. And she sure loves to drink her vodka.”
The new memoir will be joined by a documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, to debut this fall. Here’s a preview:
Meanwhile, Ti Martin will be interviewed by John Pope and sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania Street.