Gourmet's 50 Women Game Changers in Food: # 34, Ella Brennan

This was such a fun post to write. I LOVE New Orleans and have literally eaten my way through the city. This Game Changer is the undisputed queen of NOLA and my post could have gone on and on as the Brennan family is fascinating.

Ella Brennan is the daughter of Nellie Brennan and Owen Edward Brennan Sr., who had a job in the New Orleans shipyards. She grew up in the Irish Channel section of New Orleans and instead of joining the debutante set, she spent her time at Cafe Lafitte, learning about life from the Cafe Lafitte regulars like Lucius Beebe, the famous bon vivant, and Max Kriendler, who owned the "21" Club in New York. Nothing dull about Ella's teenage years!

"Before the jet plane, there was no jet set, darlin' -- there was Cafe Lafitte," she said. "Everybody was there. "And there I was, this little girl off a bayou, big eyes, big ears and a big mouth in the making."

Ella's  oldest brother Owen was g
ood-looking, gregarious and quite the bon vivant around town. He became one of the French Quarter's favorite gadabouts. He earned his reputation as proprietor of the Old Absinthe House and later the Vieux Carre, a restaurant he bought in the French Quarter. Ella idolized him. She griped about the poor quality of food served there so Owen offered her a job.

She was still a girl when Owen first put her on an airplane and sent her around the world to eat in the finest restaurants and see what she could learn. "My mother cooked everything you could think of better than anyone on earth," Brennan says. Brennan was definitely
not a cook (“Who the hell wants to cook?”), but she developed an educated palate through her travels, which she trained by “restaurant chasing,” as she called her passion of energetically sampling the offerings of restaurants wherever she went. Something she's continued throughout her life.

"I read all the books ever written on Creole cooking and then all the French ones that were translated, " she says. "I still say the first 137 pages of the Escoffier cookbook -- if you don't know that, you don't know anything about cooking," she says.

Miss Ella, as she is called, married briefly but wasn't much of a stay-at-home mom. Although unconventional, Brennan endowed her children with something her daughter says she values even more: interesting lives.

While Vieux Carre ultimately grew into a consequential establishment, Owen was determined to create something sensational. Brennan's, he would call it. Unfortunately, he died in 1955 but together, the family managed to regroup and get on with the project.
"Everybody mortgaged their houses, " Brennan says. "And everybody who had an in-law got a loan."

"We did everything wrong we could possibly do wrong but we made a lot of friends along the way," is how she explains the family's success. Brennan's was a hit. 
"A lot of business got done at Brennan's. Some people did more business at the restaurant than in their offices."

The family packaged the Creole mystique and pushed it into the American mainstream. "Bananas Foster" was invented during Miss Ella's reign at Brennan's; so was "Breakfast at Brennan's," the prototypical American brunch. In the process, they developed social, financial and political bonds far beyond New Orleans. The Brennans are the Kennedys of the Big Easy. 

In 1969, the Brennans bought Emile Commander's restaurant. The culinary world was being shaken by a controversial new approach to food -- nouvelle cuisine, and Brennan wanted to marry it somehow to traditional New Orleans fare. She invented "haute creole". (Interesting since the Brennans were Irish.) The restaurant was not an immediate hit.

"Let me tell you, it was dicey in the early days, " says Brennan's son Alex.
 For five years, Brennan struggled with the restaurant, but experience won out. 
The family survived deaths and a rift in 1974, when a family feud split the business. Owen's children -- Pip, Jimmy and Ted -- have run the family's original restaurant, Brennan's, on Royal Street. At the same time, Ella, Dick, Adelaide, Dottie and John took over Commander's Palace in the Garden District and built it into one of the 10 top grossing restaurants in the United States.

When the world started to change, Miss Ella pushed her brother Dick to computerize the business. When the national diet began to change, she pushed her chef, Emeril Lagasse, to lighten Creole dishes. Creating restaurants that can thrive in a tight economy, herding her family through a change of guard -- these are the sort of things Miss Ella can handle.

Many chefs got their start here: Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse and Frank Brigsten, who says: "Can you cook in that environment?" he asks. "Do you have the moves? Can you do the dance? That's what you learn in a place like Commander's Palace: Do you have it or not?" 
"You can be the greatest chef in the world, " says Brigtsen, "but if you can't serve your food at a profit, you won't be the greatest chef in the world for very long." 

                                                               Here's my AJLI ladies' group at the  Commander's Palace Jazz Brunch

The reason for Ella Brennan's success? She's never content; she does her homework and reads voraciously; she learned the business from the bottom up; she knows how to combine a spirit of fun with a grand restaurant; and finally, she knows service is king.

In 1996, Commander's Palace was honored with the Lifetime Outstanding Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. It has also been awarded the Lifetime Service Award.
In 2002 the Lifetime Achievement Award Winner from SFA was given to Ella Brennan.


There are many
 famous Brennan restaurant recipes we've read about, but I decided on this wonderful, unusual soup. Of course, you have to love eggplant, which I do. This is supposedly a favorite of Ella's and is thicker than most soups, almost a purée. I made a few changes to the recipe. I puréed the soup in my food processor and I used fresh herbs.

Cream of Eggplant Soup

From The Commander's Palace New Orleans Cookbook

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups minced onions
1 1/2 cups minced celery

1 1/2 cups peeled and finely diced potatoes
2 large eggplants, peeled at least 1/4 inch from the skin (to prevent bitterness), finely diced
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon sweet basil
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups heavy cream

salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a large saucepan and sauté the onions, celery, potatoes and eggplant until soft, about 25 minutes. Add curry powder, thyme and basil. Cook until ingredients begin to stick to the bottom of the pan.
Add chicken stock and cook until soup begins to thicken, about 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat, purée in a food processor and then add cream and salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Join Mary from One Perfect Bite and all the other participants in this fun series.

Val - More Than Burnt Toast
Joanne - Eats Well With Others
Taryn - Have Kitchen Will Feed
Susan - The Spice Garden
Claudia - A Seasonal Cook in Turkey
Heather - girlichef
Miranda - Mangoes and Chutney
Jeanette - Healthy Living
April - Abby Sweets 
Katie - Making Michael Pollan Proud
Mary - One Perfect Bite
Viola - The Life is Good Kitchen
Sue - The View from Great Island
Kathleen Van Bruinisse - Bake Away with Me 
Kathleen - Gonna Want Seconds
Martha - Lines from Linderhof
Amy - Beloved Green

 Ciao Chow Linda


  1. I'd love to visit New Orleans one day... That soup looks marvelous and lipsmackingly good.



  2. I've always been fascinated by Brennan's and the family. I've eaten at the original Brennan's in NOLA and later dined at the one in Houston many times. I have the original Brennan's cookbook, the one with the rooster on the front.

    Miss Ella is a very fascinating lady and your article about her is splendid Barbara. You've described her to a tee. I think it would have been very exciting to have known her or at least been in her presence at one time or another.

    She was a very commanding presence (excuse the pun). I'm sure she would approve of your lovely cream soup that you've garnished so beautifully with the basil leaves.

    I saved an article from Bon Appetit several years ago about her and the family. I can't wait to see what they others will say about Miss Ella.

  3. That was a passionate commentary on Ella, and fun to read. That soup almost reminds me of an eggplant dip!

  4. Cream of Eggplant....never would have thought to make that a soup....sounds AMAZING!

  5. Barbara: I've enjoyed every word of your post. We love New Orleans and have been to these restaurants; however, I never knew the story. Wow, to have been sent around the world to eat at the finest restaurants! I have a new respect for the family and can't wait to go back for more fine meals!! Great post!


  6. Look nice! I never made an eggplant soup but I love the idea! I make soups of almost all (lol)

  7. The soup looks wonderful, I would love to try it. Looks like your group was enjoying themselves. Great post, she sounds like an amazing woman.

  8. This post was really interesting, even if it did include the dreaded eggplant :)

  9. I've never been to New Orleans, isn't that a crime? I've seen so many recipes and think I had a cookbook from Commander's Palace (before the big flush when I downsized). I do remember lots and lots of butter and oil but huge flavor. I'd love to try this soup though. Honestly, never thought of making an eggplant soup before. You did a great job telling us about Ella... I bet she would be fun to meet.

  10. I've been to New Orleans many times and I have great memories of brunch there. I missed seeing this soup recipe while searching..my husband loves eggplant, so I'll have to make it. Thanks for the link to the NYT article, too.

  11. I've been itching to go back to NoLa since I left, and I'm sorry we have a busy weekend ahead or I'd twist the Knight's arm and jet down!

    Can't WAIT to make this recipe. Sunday maybe?

  12. I only had cream of eggplant soup once before and I didn't like it, but this one sounds perfectly delicious—bookmarked!

  13. I love the soup recipe. It looks pretty straight forward. It would be very welcome on a cold day like today. Thanks for sharing.

  14. I knew the name Brennan's but had no idea of Ella's story or that so many famous chefs were connected. The eggplant soup recipe sounds fantastic - I'm going to hold onto it for the summer eggplant season!

  15. Oh, how fun that you've actually been there! I'd love to go, it sounds like it has amazing atmosphere. And YUM on the eggplant soup. I've never tried any type of creamy soup w/ eggplant before and it sounds wonderful!

  16. The post was perfect in every way, Barbara. I had so much fun with our subject this week and I can tell you did to. The soup demands to be tried and I'll be doing that really soon. Have a great weekend. Blessings...Mary

  17. What a fun-loving, lively post! I would love to meet her! I never saw the soup -so glad you did it because now I want to do it. Love the spices - just brings the eggplant to life!

  18. I loved your story of Ella, very well put together. New Orleans is one of my favorite places even though I've been there only once and the next time I'm going, I'm taking Ella knowledge with me! I'm not a big fan of eggplant but, this soup could turn me around :) Cream of anything has my vote!

  19. I really want to go to New Orleans now. Like...tomorrow.

    And I also really want a bowl of this soup! Creamy eggplant heaven.

  20. Fabulous post Barbara. Love the picture of your group at the restaurant. And the soup looks wonderful.

  21. I've eaten at Brennan's--the bananas foster is worth the trip alone (and I don't even like bananas very much, so that's sayin' something).

  22. I have never heard of cream of eggplant soup! The flavors sound great, especially the addition of curry.

  23. what a unique lady and what a unique soup! cream of eggplant? i've never seen it before, but why not? :)

  24. I loved this writeup of this maven of New Orleans. This recipe alone is reason enough to celebrate Creole cuisine.

  25. What an incredible story. Ella and really her whole family sound super fascinating. We've dined once, many years ago, at Commander's Palace. I liked it so well I bought their cookbook right on the spot. I did know that Bananas Foster was invented in NO but not where.

    I really love this series!



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