Ella Brennan, 1925–2018
The restaurateur who became a New Orleans icon
Ella Brennan made every meal a celebration. The matriarch of a family of New Orleans restaurateurs, Brennan spent half a century running the clan’s flagship, Commander’s Palace, which is famed for serving a mix of nouvelle, Creole, and Cajun cuisines with a theatrical flourish. At Commander’s, balloons decorate tables, diners wear chef’s hats, and local musicians parade from table to table. “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” Brennan said. The food was no afterthought, and although Brennan didn’t cook, she groomed chefs who’d become stars, and obsessively refined the menu, adding acclaimed dishes, including “turtle soup au sherry” and bananas Foster. Brennan could be tough—her nickname was Hurricane Ella—but she was as devoted to the staff as she was demanding. “What I do is teach,” she said. “I’ve been doing it forever.”
Brennan was born in New Orleans to a shipyard superintendent father and a homemaker mother who was an “inventive cook,” said the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After graduating from high school, she began overseeing operations at the family’s new Bourbon Street restaurant, Vieux Carré. The menu was dull—trout meunière, chicken, and veal—and following her repeated complaints, her eldest brother, Owen, declared, “You think you’re so smart? Go fix it, smarty pants.” Brennan added Creole staples and taught the servers—and herself—about wine. The restaurant prospered. But as they prepared to move into a larger space in 1955, Owen died of a heart attack. A “family feud” developed with his widow, said The New York Times, and Brennan was eventually ousted from the restaurant. She refused to return for 40 years.
In 1969, Brennan and a sister, Adelaide, “bought a run-down eatery called Commander’s Palace,” said The Washington Post. With a focus on local ingredients and an amazing streak of chefs—Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon—the restaurant went on to win six James Beard Awards, “the Oscars of the food world.” When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Commander’s suffered considerable damage. Repairs took 13 months and $6.5 million to complete, and when the restaurant reopened in 2006, Brennan and her co-owners were greeted with cheers in the packed dining room. “We never even paused to consider not coming back,” she said. “Hell no. New Orleans is our town, and she needed us as much as we needed her.”