The woman behind fine-dining landmark Commander's Palace helped jump-start a new era of New Orleans cuisine.
One of the most influential figures in New Orleans dining, restaurateur Ella Brennan has died at 92, reports The Times-Picayune. Brennan, whose family is responsible for turning the Garden District's Commander's Palace into one of the country's most well-regarded restaurants, lived in New Orleans her entire life.
Her niece, Lally Brennan, told The Times-Picayune that Brennan passed away in her Garden District home next door to the restaurant on Thursday morning.
"The impact that Miss Ella had on New Orleans is immeasurable," her family said in a statement. "She broke every boundary that she came up against, opening restaurants during a time when female ownership was unprecedented, and fostered an incredible sense of community in each kitchen and dining room that she touched."
A 2017 documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, offered an intimate look into the life of a woman who spent her life striving for excellence, growing the family's culinary empire into 14 New Orleans restaurants, with one in Houston and Disneyland.
“Mom always wanted New Orleans to be the Paris of America,” Ti Martin said of her mother, then 91 years old, in the documentary. “She was very much on a mission to put New Orleans on the map.” Indeed, Brennan's devotion to New Orleans had a national impact. At Commander’s Palace, she shepherded the careers of chefs like Paul Prudhomme, who is largely credited with legitimizing Cajun cuisine in America, and later Emeril Lagasse, one of the first-ever Food Network stars.
After Commander's Palace won a James Beard Award in 1993 for Outstanding Service, Brennan told the crowd, "I accept this award for every damn captain and waiter in the country," receiving a standing ovation.
“She tells me on a regular basis we’ve got the worst restaurant in America next door,” Martin joked in the documentary. “She believes you’re supposed to be everything you’re capable of and if you’re not, you’re not going to be happy.”
Chef Frank Brigtsen, a line cook at Commander's in 1978 and 1979, told the Picayune, "She created an environment in which people could learn and grow and find themselves in the industry."