NEW ORLEANS — Ella Brennan, who couldn’t cook but played a major role in putting New Orleans on the world’s culinary map, died Thursday. She was 92.
“Tonight, the iconic Commander’s Palace sign will not be lit,” said a statement emailed from the Commander’s Family of Restaurants. It said Ms. Brennan died with family and friends by her side, and services will be private.
Ella Brennan was credited with creating nouvelle Creole cuisine, was the matriarch of a family that owns nearly two-dozen restaurants — more if you count every outlet of a local pizza and po’-boy chain — and, at Commander’s Palace, cultivated many of the city’s top chefs, including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. She won the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
Ms. Brennan neatly summed up her life’s experience in October 2015, “I had a barrel of fun and if anybody calls that work, they’re crazy.”
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Her speech when Commander’s Palace won the second James Beard award for outstanding service was equally succinct and self-deprecating: “I accept this award for every damn captain and waiter in the country.”
“The entire auditorium rose to its feet for a standing ovation as my mother endeared herself to anyone who has ever set a table or taken an order,” her daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin, wrote in the introduction to their book “Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace.”
Ms. Brennan didn’t inherit her mother’s talent for cooking. “She can’t really boil water,” Lagasse said days before Ms. Brennan’s 90th birthday in November 2015. But, he said, “She’s one of the greatest restaurateurs I’ve ever met. She … just has this way with people, of leading and showing the way of exceptional hospitality.”
She started in the restaurant business as a high-school kid working in the bar and restaurant owned by her oldest brother, Owen. Mostly, she taught herself, reading books and magazines and asking questions of just about anyone else who crossed her path.
Lagasse recalled that they’d often sit at her desk together on Saturdays to thumb through menus and cookbooks, discussing their experiences and how to “creolize” dishes for Commander’s customers.
Lagasse said Ms. Brennan also taught him his philosophy: “getting up every day and trying a little harder than the day before.”
One of her mottos was “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.”
Ms. Brennan grew up with two sisters and three brothers, children of a shipyard supervisor and a woman who loved to cook and entertain.
Her first full-time job was at the Vieux Carré, the predecessor to Brennan’s Restaurant. Owen Brennan was in the middle of planning for Brennan’s when he died in 1955 at age 45. Plans for a bank loan fell through. The family took out new mortgages, borrowed from in-laws and friends, and the restaurant opened.
In 1969, Ella and younger brother Dick Brennan bought Commander’s Palace. They began managing it in 1974, about the time Owen Brennan’s widow ousted the rest of the family from Brennan’s. Dick and Ella Brennan brought in Prudhomme — the first American chef at a major New Orleans restaurant — a year after buying Commander’s Palace.
The American Culinary Federation’s New Orleans chapter named an annual award for her.
Her marriage to Paul Martin ended in divorce. In addition to her daughters, her survivors include her son, Alex Brennan-Martin; her sister; and two grandchildren.