Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table


Ella Brennan, the grande dame of New Orleans cuisine.

(2016) Documentary (Iwerks & Co) Ella Brennan, Patricia Clarkson (narrator), Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, Ti Martin, Daniel Boulud, Tim Zagat, Jeremiah Tower, Leah Chase, Frank Brigtsen, Dickie Brennan, Paul Prudhomme, Ralph Brennan, Drew Nieporent, John Pope, Alex Brennan-Martin, Gene Bourg, Lally Brennan, Julia Reed, Marcelle Bienvenu, Meg Bickford. Directed by Leslie Iwerks

In no other American city save for maybe San Francisco is a city’s culture so tied up in its cuisine as New Orleans. In the Big Easy there is one family who have dominated the city’s gastronomic landscape like no other.

The Brennan family has been a household name in Louisiana since the 1940s when Owen Brennan bought a struggling French Quarter restaurant called the Vieux Carré and made it a rousing success. In an era when the classic French restaurants like Antoine’s ruled the New Orleans roost Brennan – who was told that an Irish man had no business cooking authentic New Orleans cuisine – put his whole family to work in the restaurant. As it became more and more successful, it was clear a larger space was needed and they found it over on Royal Street. The move took place during lunch service with employees and diners carrying pots, pans, chairs and whatever else they could carry to the new digs. A jazz band followed them down the street; only in New Orleans, no?

The new space was renamed Brennan’s and it became famous for its signature creation – Bananas Foster, which happens to be Da Queen’s favorite dish of any sort. Ella showed a knack for running the business and was soon the restaurant’s manager and after Owen passed away, she was essentially the family business’ chief executive. But a schism developed; Owen’s widow Maude wanted more control over their namesake restaurant and Ella was forced out after having built the restaurant into a thriving business.

Undaunted, she bought a property in the Garden District called Commander’s Palace which had been a less popular drinking and dining establishment for decades after being an important eatery at the turn of the 20th century. She painted the property a bright blue to make it distinctive among the genteel mansions of the district and installed an executive chef by the name of Paul Prudhomme who would himself go on to be one of the true members of the New Orleans culinary pantheon.

Under Prudhomme’s kitchen leadership, Commander’s Palace grew to be one of the best restaurants not only in New Orleans but in the country. Prudhomme was taking Cajun cooking and elevating it, ushering an age where Cajun cooking was ascendant in American cuisine. After some years went by, Ella urged Prudhomme to open his own restaurant and he did: K-Paul’s, which remains a New Orleans institution to this day. Prudhomme also put out his own line of spices which helped make him a multi-millionaire.

Replacing Prudhomme as executive chef was a young man named Emeril Lagasse. His natural charisma made him a natural on-camera personality and he frequently appeared on local TV shows cooking various dishes from the Palace’s menu. Emeril took the focus off of Cajun dishes and while many of Prudhomme’s recipes are still on the menu, Emeril added his own stamp to the Palace. As with his predecessor, Ella urged Emeril to strike out on his own and as one of the Food Network’s earliest celebrity chefs, Emeril has since gone on to found a restaurant empire that rivals that of the Brennan family.

The documentary is certainly a love letter to Ella and her accomplishments which are considerable considering that she faced extra resistance because of her gender. Not only did Ella break through the glass ceiling, she shattered it and paved the way for many women to become successful restaurateurs. Ella is an absolute icon in New Orleans and her influence on New Orleans cuisine cannot be overstated. Commander’s Palace has been a fertile breeding ground for great chefs who have gone on to open incredible restaurants of their own.

The stories that are told about the Brennan family are classic and one gets a sense that the closeness of the family – the schism between Maude and the rest of the family notwithstanding – is one of the reasons that their restaurants are so successful; those who go there are made to feel like family. I can attest to that personally; we had travelled from Orlando to New Orleans to celebrate Da Queen’s birthday some years back and we went to a trendy eatery in the Quarter for the actual day. It was an utter disaster; the restaurant was badly designed with sound bouncing all over the place and it was so loud that we had to shout across a table for two to be heard. The food was good but overpriced and not one mention of my wife’s birthday was made until a manager chased after us as we left to shout out a very tardy and not well-received happy birthday.

The next night we had reservations for Commander’s Palace and when we arrived there were balloons and decorations. Throughout the evening Da Queen was made to feel like an actual queen and we ordered the prix fixe tasting menu. When my wife asked if she could substitute the Turtle soup for the one on the menu, she was told they would add the turtle soup and so they did, at no charge. She was given a chef’s hat at the conclusion of one of the most amazing meals we have ever had (second only to the one we had at L’Atalier du Joel Robuchon in Paris) and given a menu autographed by Toby McPhail, the current executive chef. We have been back since and we make a point of going every time we visit New Orleans. Something tells me that’s exactly what Miss Ella intended from the get-go.

One of the things I really like about this documentary is that Iwerks doesn’t just make it about Ella Brennan, although she would be forgiven if she had – Ella is an engaging personality who thinks nothing at 90 years young of dancing in the aisles of her restaurant during her famous jazz brunch. But Ella is tied in very much to New Orleans and the city is a presence throughout the film. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina also plays a role – Commander’s Palace was severely damaged by the storm and was closed for almost a year. The citizens of New Orleans are a particularly amazing bunch and the film acknowledges it not only through how they got through Katrina but how they celebrate life and Ella Brennan helps with that in a very significant way.

So perhaps yes, my judgment is impaired by the good memories I experienced at Commander’s Palace but I think I am being fair in saying that Ella Brennan’s story is inspiring and Iwerks, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, presents it in an entertaining way. Certainly viewers will be more likely to visit both Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace (the Brennan family owns something like 15 different restaurants as of this writing) and well they should; both are well-known for serving unforgettable meals that are in fact unforgettable experiences. This isn’t just an ad though; it is a story that represents the best of America, how someone can overcome odds and obstacles to create a business that is not only successful but iconic. Ella Brennan did that and it deserves to be celebrated – preferably with a great meal at her restaurant.

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful stories are told. Iwerks wisely makes New Orleans an integral part of the film. You can almost taste the gumbo.
REASONS TO STAY: This might not mean as much to anyone who hasn’t visited the Crescent City
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly acceptable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2013, the Brennan family re-acquired Brennan’s restaurant; Ella, who hadn’t set foot in it for forty years, returned and ordered Bananas Foster.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Cries From Syria

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The Last Holiday (2006)


Gerard Depardieu missed lunch but Queen Latifah lets him eat a finger or two.

Gerard Depardieu missed lunch but Queen Latifah lets him eat a finger or two.

(2006) Comedy (Paramount) Queen Latifah, Gerard Depardieu, Timothy Hutton, LL Cool J, Alicia Witt, Giancarlo Esposito, Jane Adams, Mike Estime, Susan Kellermann, Jascha Washington, Matt Rose, Ranjit Chowdhry, Michael Nouri, Jaqueline Fleming, Emeril Lagasse, Lana Likic. Directed by Wayne Wang

We are most of us so busy making a living that we forget to actually live. Our noses are so far down to the grindstone that we fail to notice the blue sky and sunshine above our heads. We certainly are prone to forgetting that our lives are short and can end without warning; so many of us leave it with so many of our dreams unfulfilled.

Georgia Byrd (Latifah) works at a New Orleans department store giving cooking demonstrations and selling cookware. She is crazy about co-worker Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) but is far too shy to make a move. She goes home at night and watches cooking shows, making gourmet recipes that she serves to a neighborhood kid (Washington) while she consumes Lean Cuisine frozen meals because she’s dieting.

One day at work she hits her head and loses consciousness. She is taken to the store infirmary (do any department stores really have those? Outside of Harrods in London I mean) where Dr. Gupta (Chowdhry) takes a CAT scan on the used machine he has just received and to his horror discovers several brain tumors – products of the rare condition Lampington’s Disease. The size and location of the tumors indicate that Georgia is in the final stages of the Disease and has only a few weeks. The operation that might save her may well do no good at all and the prohibitive cost of the potentially life-saving surgery is something her HMO won’t cover. Georgia hasn’t the time to contest it.

She decides to spend her final Christmas season at the Grandhotel Pupp in Kylovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. It’s an exclusive resort but Georgia has been frugal and has accumulated a pretty good amount in her 401k so she cashes it out and flies out to Czechoslovakia. Why there? Why, her favorite chef – Didier (Depardieu) is the executive chef there.

Once there she intends to indulge herself and pamper herself with spa treatments, skiing lessons and of course sampling one of everything from the Chef’s menu. He is so grateful that she is not another diet-conscious American requiring substitutions of “healthy” ingredients that he comes out to meet her himself. This draws the curiosity of a neighboring table where Senator Dillings (Esposito), Congressman Stewart (Nouri) are sitting, as well as the man who is wining and dining them – Matthew Kragen (Hutton) who happens to own the department store chain where Georgia was formerly employed. He sics his assistant Ms. Burns (Witt) with whom he is also having an affair with on Georgia to find out just who she is. The paranoid Kragen is concerned she’s out to ruin his deal that the support of the politicians is crucial for.

Her can-do attitude and positive outlook are inspiring to the lot of them and the more enchanted they become with Georgia, the more suspicious Kragen gets. He gets the officious Gunther (Kellermann), a hotel concierge, to go through Georgia’s things. Gunther discovers that Georgia, whom all the others (as well as the hotel staff whom Georgia treats with kindness and respect – something they aren’t used to) assumes is extremely wealthy, is a store clerk in one of Kragen’s stores. But her triumph quickly turns to shame when she discovers a letter that Georgia has written instructing hotel staff what to do should she pass away while she’s at their hotel.

Sean, in the meantime, decides that he needs to tell Georgia how he feels about her (it turns out the feelings were mutual) and decides to fly to the hotel to do just that. However a blizzard has made getting there precarious and Georgia herself has decided she’d rather spend her last days at home. Will the two be able to get together before the end?

This is a remake of a 1950 comedy starring Alec Guinness in the role Queen Latifah plays here. It’s a very different movie, somewhat more witty and a good bit darker (there’s an astonishing twist that you WILL not see coming near the end of that picture that is absent here). This is much more heart-warming, a kind of a warm hug on a winter day by a beloved friend. Latifah shows her chops as a leading lady; she’s done a lot of comedies both before and since but this is really in many ways the best of the lot.

Georgia starts out kind of mousy (which is really playing against type for Latifah) but good-hearted and as she finally comes out of her shell and allows herself to live we get a sense of the joyfulness she has inside her. She simply learns to enjoy the things that are good in life; good food, good friends, taking risks and trying new things. It’s a lesson not all of us learn in many more years of life than Georgia has lived.

The supporting cast is particularly solid, with kudos going to Depardieu as the chef who feels underappreciated (although with the foodie revival of the last few years he may be feeling better these days) and Hutton who’s Keegan is a greedy paranoid bastard but not altogether without saving graces. LL Cool J, who has become quite accomplished as an actor since on L.A. NCIS shows some good chemistry with fellow rapper Latifah.

This isn’t a particularly remarkable story – even in 1950 when Guinness did it this was pretty tried and true stuff. It’s simply done very well here, largely due to the screen presence of Latifah who makes the audience feel like old friends. Much of why the movie works is due to Latifah who simply makes this movie a vehicle for her personality. While some of the dialogue is clumsy and has the characters saying things that human beings don’t say in reality, it can be overlooked if for no other reason for the warm fuzziness coursing through your veins when the end credits roll.

WHY RENT THIS: Really heart-warming. Latifah shows that she can carry a film on her own here. Depardieu is a whole lot of fun here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The dialogue can be awkward. A bit too rote in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few sexual references but nothing too overt.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Georgia is serving Sean duck hash on toasted baguette, the Food Network chefs who were advisors and on-site chefs had to substitute for the duck in Sean’s portion because actor LL Cool J doesn’t eat duck.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of Wolfgang Puck recipes that you can make at home, as well as an interesting featurette as to how this remake nearly hit the screen in the mid-80s…starring the late John Candy, which was shelved at the comedian’s death until Latifah’s agent read it and thought it would make a great starring vehicle for his client.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $45M production budget; the movie failed to recoup its production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: John Dies at the End

The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog

For every princess, there must be a prince, frog or not.

(2009) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings, Bruno Campos, Randy Newman, Emeril Lagasse, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Michael-Leon Wooley. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Once upon a time, all animation was hand drawn in a painstaking process that took years for each feature to be completed. However, computers not only made the process faster, allowing for more animated features to be created every year, those who were more programmers than artists created an onslaught of computer animation that had little soul and nothing much to recommend them while still doing great box office. The days of hand-drawn animation seemingly at an end, Disney shut down its pen and ink division and decided to go full time to computer animation. When their own in-house efforts yielded less-than-stellar results, Disney wound up buying Pixar (whose films they had distributed from the get-go) and installing their chief, John Lassiter, in charge of Disney’s entire animated division, including Pixar.

But Lassiter did a funny thing for a computer guy; he re-instated the traditional animation department, hiring back many of the animators who had been let go. Their first effort is this take on “The Frog Prince” only with a distaff sensibility.

Tiana (Rose) is a young waitress in jazz-age New Orleans with a dream. She wants to open up her own restaurant where she can serve up her daddy’s gumbo recipe, with just a dash of hot sauce. Her daddy (Howard) died in the Great War, leaving her and her momma (Winfrey) to care for each other. Tiana’s ditzy best friend, Charlotte LaBouff (Cody) and her doting dad (Goodman) are out to get Charlotte a prince, and when one drops in her lap, she’s ecstatic.

That Prince is Naveen (Campos) from the impoverished country of Moldonia. He needs to wed a rich lady to help restore the empty coffers of the Moldonian treasury but quite frankly, Naveen is more interested in playing music and letting Le Bon Tomps Roullez in the French Quarter. He also attracts the attention of the evil and nefarious Dr. Facillier (David) a.k.a. the Shadow Man, who casts a voodoo spell on the Prince, turning him into a frog while his soul is transferred into the body of Naveen’s manservant/butler/attaché Lawrence (Bartlett) who would then hand over control of the money and Moldonia to the evil Doc.

In desperation, Naveen tries to find a princess to kiss him and restore him to his former shape, but mistakes Tiana, dressed up for the engagement party of her friend Charlotte, for a princess and the kiss only turns Tiana into a fellow amphibian. Chased by Dr. Facillier who needs the frog prince to refill his magical potion that keeps Lawrence in the form of Naveen, Tiana and Naveen head to the swamp where they meet up with allies of their own; the practical firefly Ray (Cummings), the trumpet-playing crocodile Louis (Wooley) and his buddies (Lagasse, Newman) as well as Mama Odie (Lewis), a voodoo priestess who perhaps alone can reverse the curse of Dr. Facillier.

Is this a return to the form that saw Disney create classic after classic in the 90s? Yes and no. While this doesn’t quite measure up to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it’s much better than recent attempts such as Home on the Range or Brother Bear. As a matter of fact, while it doesn’t hit the high notes that Pixar’s movies tend to, it’s still a pretty solid effort.

Rose makes for a feisty princess, the kind that Disney can easily market not only to young African American girls but to the legions of princess-happy tots whose parents deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into Disney’s coffers. The cast has a great deal of energy, particularly Cummings, Cody and Wooley, and the movie barrels along at a jolly pace.

The New Orleans locale is inspired, albeit this is something of a fantasy Big Easy, but it’s recognizable nonetheless. New Orleans is the kind of city that has enough mystery and romance that other cities can only hope for; only New York and San Francisco among American cities have the kind of cachet that the Crescent City possesses, and the jazz age New Orleans is something special again.

There are some passable musical numbers but oddly enough, many of them bring the movie to a grinding halt as the characters go into a song and dance routine that temporarily halts the story’s progression. Personally, I might have cut two or three of the numbers, but I might be in the minority on this one; certainly kids will love the brassy, jazzy music that has a touch of modern hip-hop, gospel and even rock and roll on the edge. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s Disney.

And yet, in a very real way, it is. This is very much the kind of movie that Disney was making ten years ago to great success and had it been released then, it might well be considered a classic on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid. Even so, it is better than most of the Disney releases before and after that incredible run in the last decade, and marks a welcome return of an art form that was certainly on the endangered list. For that accomplishment alone, regardless of the social implications of an African-American princess (which are certainly important in their own right), this movie deserves a respectful audience, who will be rewarded with a rollicking good time.

WHY RENT THIS: The first hand-drawn Disney animation in six years is worth celebrating; it is also a return to form for an artform that has widely lost its luster with the explosion of computer animation which Pixar helped usher in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Two many musical numbers stops the films momentum dead in its tracks from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences – c’mon, it’s DISNEY, you know.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is this the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess, it is the first to feature a left-handed princess (Rose is also left-handed and she requested that the animators make her character the same).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes featurettes on the history of Disney Princesses and how the newest one fits in. There is also an interactive game for the kids, as well as a music video of Ne-Yo’s “Never Knew I Needed You.” All in all, chock full of goodies as is the way Disney normally does things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $267M on a production budget of $105M; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Morning Glory