Remembering Miss Ella

Houston chefs share memories of legendary New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan

Houston chefs remember legendary New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan

Ella Brennan Commander's Palace
Ella Brennan passed away on May 31. Courtesy photo

The culinary world is mourning the loss of Ella Brennan. The legendary restaurateur behind iconic New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace passed away May 31 at the age of 92, the New Orleans Times Picayune reports.

Brennan leaves behind a towering legacy. As noted in the documentary about her lifeElla Brennan: Commanding the Table, she played a key role in helping evolve American food culture to where it is today. She championed chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, emphasized the use of local ingredients, and always made sure diners' needs were met. The film also explains all of the obstacles Brennan overcame on her path to success, including being fired. In 2016, Brennan's daughter Ti Martin, the current proprietor of Commander's, told CultureMap that her mother's attitude towards work may be her greatest legacy. 

“You can work extremely hard and not miss a minute of fun,” Martin said. “If you make it part of your life, you can really do that.”

Brennan's family founded legendary Houston restaurant Brennan's of Houston where her son Alex Brennan-Martin remains the proprietor. In tribute to her, the restaurant's sign went dark on the night of May 31.

Brennan's has served as an important training ground for dozens of Houston chefs. CultureMap contacted several of them for any anecdotes or memories they cared to share about Miss Ella. These are their stories. 

Carl Walker is the general manager of Brennan's of Houston. He worked previously as a chef at Commander's Palace and as the executive chef at Brennan's of Houston. 

I remember one time I made this fantastic peach ice cream. She tried it and she goes, doesn’t taste enough like peaches. I went back to the drawing board. When you take Miss Ella something to try and tell her it tastes like something, it better taste like that thing. It’s gotta have pow, as she used to say.

Even this week I used her for an example. [She used to say that] it’s not about how well the dish sold that night; it’s whether people are coming back to order it again. What I learned from her is, are you going to come back and have this dish again? Then you have a dish. That’s something she did that pushed us to give it our best.

She was a person who was focused on customers and what they enjoyed and whether they’re coming back. That’s the thing. That’s who she was.

Danny Trace, the executive chef of downtown restaurants Potente and Osso & Kristalla, worked at Commander's Palace prior to spending almost 10 years as the executive chef at Brennan's of Houston.

Many of my days were spent at the Commander's chef table and/or her living room, which is in her house a short walk through the courtyard located next to Commander's. In her presence the world seemed to stop and our conversations were the type that there could be a Mardi Gras parade running right behind us, but all I could hear was her voice. Thank you, Ella Brennan, for 'creolizing' so many of us.

 

Mark Holley is the former chef-owner of Holley's restaurant. He worked as a chef at both Commander's Palace and Brennan's of Houston.

Ella always took time out to spend with me during my tenure at Commander's Palace. She encouraged me to be a good leader, to stay current and creative, and to become a role model to others working in the kitchen with me. Ella had a lot of cookbooks and she taught me to use cookbooks as a tool to further my culinary education. She believed if I could take away one great idea from a cookbook then it was worth the purchase.

To date, I own over 500 cookbooks, and it has become a hobby and a lifestyle for me. I credit that to my success as a self-taught chef. She was a great force in the industry, and I will miss her.

Lance Fegen, culinary director and executive chef of the F.E.E.D. TX restaurant group, worked at Brennan's from 1991 to 1993.

When I was a grill cook at Brennan’s, the atmosphere in the kitchen was often tense and volatile—as you would expect when you’re cooking for a thousand people. On one busy day, Ella Brennan peeked her head into the kitchen and said to me, ‘just make sure you take care of our customers.’ She taught me exactly that—that hospitality is about the customers. It’s not about the cooks or the food.

She brought a clear, distinct passion to Brennan’s. The energy in the room changed when she walked in and she passed that on to Alex. Through them, I learned the importance of being caring and loving as a restaurant owner.

Chris Shepherd is the chef-owner of Underbelly Hospitality. He worked as a chef and sommelier at Brennan's of Houston.

I spent nine years with the family. I see why people are there 40 years, 50 years. Hell, Marcelino has been a captain there since 1967. That’s a long fucking time, because there’s a belief. Jose Arevalo, 30-something years. Carl [Walker], the same. It’s a family.

That’s something I always take with me. At the end of the day, we’re family. I get a lot of my philosophies from that. It’s amazing when someone can reach out and touch an industry. It’s not just who she was but what she did. That’s special . . . She’s what you want to be when you grow up.

Graham Laborde is the director of operations for Killen's Restaurants. He worked briefly as a cook at Commander's Palace. 

She was the utmost proponent of etiquette and manners. She used to say we were ladies and gentlemen feeding ladies and gentlemen.