Ella Brennan At Brennan's: 1st Time In 40 Years
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Ella Brennan stepped out of the car in front of Brennan's, the family restaurant she had once managed as a young woman. She had not been inside for 40 years.
She examined the facade, now a more muted hue of pink than the world-famous building once bore. Ella turned to her sister Dottie and said, "Oh, doesn't it look better."
It was one day before her 89th birthday and one day after a gala reopening for the 59-year-old restaurant.
Ella's nephew, Ralph Brennan, whom she hired in the 1960s as a prep cook at the French Quarter restaurant, now owns Brennan's with business partner Terry White.
"When I came down, I said that I'm only going to go forward from here today," she said. "I'm going to try not to go back in memories."
She had managed the restaurant for her older brother Owen Brennan until 1974, when a bitter dispute split the family. Ella and her siblings took over Commander's Palace, which the family had bought in 1969. Owen's three sons, Pip, Ted and Jimmy, kept Brennan's.
Since then, Ella Brennan — "the oldest living Brennan ever" — hadn't set foot in the restaurant bearing the family name.
She turned Commander's Palace into a world-class restaurant. Former Commander's chefs include Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. She was a leader in a movement that convinced serious chefs to embrace America's regional cuisines.
In 2012, Ralph Brennan and White, bought the building in a sheriff's sale. Two years later they bought the name and other assets in a bankruptcy court auction. The saga, which saw cousins Ted and Pip Brennan lose control of the business, played out in local and national media.
Ella Brennan sat in the upstairs King's Room, a glass of wine at hand, and delighted the family with stories about her 30 years working in the French Quarter: ten with Owen on Bourbon Street and 20 without him on Royal Street.
"Only happy memories," she said. "It was so fabulous. Something interesting happening every day."
The family entered the restaurant business in 1946 when Owen Brennan purchased the Vieux Carre on Bourbon Street. In 1955, he moved his restaurant from Bourbon Street to Royal Street. Ella came along as the manager, a job she had held at the Bourbon Street restaurant since she was 18.
When Owen died unexpectedly before Brennan's on Royal Street was finished, Ella rallied the family to continue with the ambitious opening. The bank had pulled back its financial support. The Brennans had to tell the contractor and the architect, Charles Gresham, that they didn't have the money to finish the project.
"They all said, 'We'll talk money later,'" Ella recalled. "You don't have those things happen today."
She sent the contractor and architect small monthly checks for years, until the debt was settled.
Despite the precarious start, Brennan's was a resounding success.
"When this restaurant opened," Ella said, "I can tell you there was no restaurant like it in America."
Even in New York, she said, French restaurants were "basic bistros." A few hotels in Manhattan had "pretty dining rooms."
"When we opened this place, it was the beginning of America standing up and being counted in the restaurant business," she said. "And it worked."
There were celebrities. There was national press.
"You never knew who was going to walk in the front door," she said.
One afternoon early on, a reporter from Look magazine showed up for breakfast with plans to write a story about Brennan's. That same day, Bill Monroe, the WDSU anchor and future host of NBC's "Meet the Press," was throwing a party to celebrate Ella's upcoming marriage to Paul Martin.
"There was Life (magazine) and there was Look. That was the top of the line," she said. "So I called up the party, and said see you later."
Breakfast was made Brennan's famous. Bananas Foster became the flaming finale to that elaborate meal.
How was Bananas Foster invented?
"That's a long story that's been told too many different ways. Nobody knows the true story," Ella said, "but I do."
The restaurant was still on Bourbon Street. Owen was on a committee to eliminate vice from the French Quarter.
"They were always cleaning up the French Quarter," she said.
For a special dinner, Owen asked for a new dessert to honor committee chairman Richard Foster.
She thought about a breakfast dish that her mother often made: sautéed bananas with scrambled eggs.
"That's the best dish I've ever had in my life," she said. "Very softly scrambled, not overdone at all."
She sliced and sautéed bananas. Then she flamed them with rum and banana liqueur, because at rival restaurants Antoine's and Arnaud's "everything was flamed." Finally, she served it over vanilla ice cream, an addition that Owen considered plebian.
"Does everything have to be 'a la Walgreens?'" he asked Ella. He reasoned, why serve ice cream when you could buy it at a drugstore?
"I have never understood why everybody in the world thinks bananas Foster is so phenomenal," Ella said. "It's very ordinary to me."
As she told stories, it was hard to escape the sense that a long saga had ended. For 40 years, there were the "Commander's Palace Brennans" and the "Royal Street Brennans."
Now that Ella and her side own both addresses, along with more than a dozen other restaurants, those modifiers seem unnecessary.
In the four decades when Owen's sons ran Brennan's, did Ella ever consider visiting?
"No. I didn't particularly want to," she said. "I literally was fired. I seem to remember that's the way it worked. We were fired."
– by AP/ Reporter Todd A. Price with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune