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
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