Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2016

Miss Ella's world: Legendary restaurant matriarch is celebrated in inspirational documentary

Legendary New Orleans restaurateur is celebrated in new documentary

Ella Brennan Commander's Palace
Legendary restaurateur Ella Brennan. Courtesy photo
Ella Brennan memoir cover
Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace tells Brennan's story. Courtesy photo
Commander's Palace exterior
Commander's Palace remains one of the best restaurants in New Orleans. Courtesy photo
Ti Martin Brennan's of Houston Commander's Palace
Brennan's daughter Ti Martin co-authored the book. Courtesy photo
Commander's Palace Bread Pudding Souffle
Bread pudding souffle: one of many dishes created at Commander's. Photo by Michael Palumbo
Ella Brennan Commander's Palace
Ella Brennan memoir cover
Commander's Palace exterior
Ti Martin Brennan's of Houston Commander's Palace
Commander's Palace Bread Pudding Souffle

One of America’s most iconic restaurateurs is finally letting people have a peek inside her world. Published in September, Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace tells the story of Ella Brennan, the matriarch of the family that owns legendary restaurants Commander’s Palace (New Orleans) and its local sibling Brennan’s of Houston.

On Saturday, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival will screen the book’s companion documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, along with remarks by Brennan’s daughter Ti Martin and director Leslie Iwerks. To celebrate, Brennan's is offering a package of a three-course brunch and a ticket to the screening for $46.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” Martin tells CultureMap. “My mom, Ella, wanted nothing to do with any of it. Every time I brought it up she just made a face and was not nice to me. I finally convinced her that her grandchildren and the rest of the young people coming up in the business had no idea of any of this history, and we were going to lose it. That got her, finally.”

Martin says that, even though she finally convinced her mother to write a memoir, she didn’t think Brennan would want to participate in a documentary. Iwerks’ Oscar-nominated resume and sustained charm offensive made it happen. In addition to interviews with members of the Brennan family, including Brennan’s of Houston proprietor Alex Brennan-Martin, the movie provides testimonials from culinary luminaries like Daniel Bouloud, Tim and Nina Zagat, and Jeremiah Tower.

Both the memoir and the film contain a number of stories from Brennan's career, during which she helped turn New Orleans from what Martin calls “a city of 500 restaurants and five recipes” into one of America’s most esteemed culinary destination.

“I tried to do it in different ways, because (mom said) 'nobody cares about my life, my history, I don’t care about my life,'” Martin says. “But people did want to know how Ella got to be Ella. It is her life. It goes quick at the beginning and then gets to the rest of it, but it gives you a sense of how she became her. It was not predictable, frankly.”

One of the more surprising details involves Brennan’s role in fostering the careers of some of America’s first celebrity chefs, Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Prior to Brennan promoting them, “you didn’t know who the chef was,” Martin says. “She thought people should know who’s in the kitchen and learn more about them. She really pushed that, and you see what happened.” 

In the movie, Lagasse tells the story of how Brennan reacted when she got tired of listening to him yell at the cooks in the kitchen.

“She’s sitting on a stool in the kitchen before we had the kitchen table,” Martin says. “She always had pads. She picked up the pad and wrote on the back of it. She held it up for him to see it — and everyone else could see — ‘you’re too smart to be so damn stupid’ and held it up. She kinda looked at him and he looked at her and that was the end of that. He tells that story, and he’s laughing.”

But even in an era of celebrity chefs, Martin says Brennan kept hospitality at the heart of her restaurant’s dining experience. A customer’s experience should “never take a back seat to the food,” Martin says. Maybe that’s why Brennan’s has never had a tasting menu.

Martin says people who have already seen the film have told her how inspirational they find it. Brennan overcame a number of obstacles — including being fired — to achieve her goals. Even at 91, she’s still a regular presence at Commander’s Palace. Her attitude may be the book’s most important lesson.

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

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table will be shown Saturday (November 12) at 1 pm at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.