“Mom always wanted New Orleans to be the Paris of America,” Ti Martin says of her 91-year-old mother Ella Brennan, the restaurateur behind the famed Commander’s Palace. “She was very much on a mission to put New Orleans on the map.” But as Brennan would later prove, that didn’t mean simply copying the latest trends from Europe or hiring pedigreed French chefs. It meant having an identity as a cultural and culinary hub. And to do that, Brennan would have to buck the food world’s preconceived notions of Cajun cuisine and a bit of institutional sexism along the way.
While still a teenager, she was tapped by her older brother Owen to work at his club, The Old Absinthe House, which he had turned into one of the French Quarter’s hot spots. “Her mother didn’t want her working [there], she called it ‘that dirty old French Quarter,’” Martin tells Food and Wine. “I think Owen definitely saw something in her. This family was and still is very good at realizing we all have certain abilities. And the thing he was great at was cultivating the business, which, in that era, was done late at night. He didn’t want to get up early. He just needed somebody to run the damn business. She was a responsible, smart, intellectually curious person. And in my family it was also about trust.”
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When the opportunity came to lease the Vieux Carré restaurant space on Bourbon Street, Owen put Ella in charge of the kitchen while he handled the other aspects of the business. Still in her early twenties, the voracious reader and determined Brennan absorbed everything she could from cookbooks and the restaurant’s chefs, teaching herself about cuts of meat and developing recipes. When McCall’s Magazine food editor Helen McCully caught wind of this dynamo who was successfully ordering around and managing a kitchen full of men unaccustomed to taking orders from a young woman, she took Ella under her wing and introduced her into the New York restaurant scene to rub elbows with the likes of James Beard, Julia Child and the up-and-coming Jacques Pepin. Ella would spend days, she recalls, studying what made places like the legendary 21 Club tick, and bring back those observations to the Big Easy.