64 Parishes

Ella Brennan

Ella Brennan was the matriarch of the family that owns many restaurants in New Orleans, including Commander's Palace.

Ella Brennan

Courtesy of Flickr

Commander's Palace. Bobak Ha'Eri (photographer)

Ella Brennan was the matriarch of the New Orleans family that owns many eating establishments from Las Vegas to Houston to Destin, Florida. She was particularly associated with the famed New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace. She grew up in the Irish Channel of New Orleans, one of six siblings born to second-generation Irish immigrants Owen Edward Brennan, a shipyard worker, and his wife Nellie. Ella Brennan attended Eleanor McMain High School. She learned the restaurant business by total immersion, working for her brother, Owen, from the age of eighteen. Initially she paid bills and wrote menus, but soon she was training waiters and hiring cooks. Gradually, she learned food. Though Brennan was not herself a cook (“Who the hell wants to cook?”), she developed terrific food sense and an educated palate, which she trained by “restaurant chasing,” as she called her passion of energetically sampling the offerings of restaurants wherever she traveled.

In 1974, Brennan began operating Commander’s Palace, a twelve-room, turquoise Victorian mansion in the heart of the Garden District. The food, which Brennan called haute Creole, coupled modified French cuisine with impeccably fresh Louisiana ingredients; signature dishes included turtle soup and seared Gulf fish, bread pudding soufflé, and bananas foster. Brennan’s disdainful name for dishes that were pretentious or overly contrived was “surreal food,” none of which her Commander’s menu offered. Along with superb food and drink, Brennan served up a unique atmosphere of hospitality and warmth. She is credited with offering a phenomenal level of service at Commander’s; her discerning attention to detail is legendary and relentless. Famed restaurant critic Ruth Reichl commented that her first visit to Commander’s Palace combined “upscale fun” with “the most extraordinary service [she]’d ever had in an American restaurant,” service which she credited to Brennan’s exacting standards.

Besides raising the profile of Louisiana cooking and popularizing nouvelle Creole cuisine, Ella Brennan provided a virtual incubator at Commander’s Palace for superbly talented chefs, among them Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Brennan’s managerial talents impressed many, including one observer who noted, “If she had been born into a railroading family, she’d be president of the railroad today.” Tim Zagat, publisher of the country’s best-known restaurant guide, said of Brennan, “I look at restaurants all over the United States every day and I think she’s up there with the best of them—and maybe even ahead of any of them.”

Ella Brennan won numerous culinary awards, including the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. On May 31, 2018, Brennan died at her home in New Orleans’s Garden District at the age of 92. Her daughter and niece, Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, today run the day-to-day operations of Commander’s Palace.