Before there was “Chopped” on Food Network or the #feedfeed on Instagram, there was a young woman named Ella Brennan, looking to make her mark on the New Orleans restaurant scene in the 1940s and 1950s. “Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table,” a documentary featured in the Milwaukee Film Festival, follows her journey from working as a manager at her older brother’s restaurant to becoming a household name today. She introduced concepts that are now ingrained in people’s minds, such as Bananas Foster and brunch in all its boozy glory. Ella Brennan was, and is, a trailblazer in New Orleans, a legend in the food industry and an example of what’s possible for women who are determined to prove they are just as capable and talented as men.
So, it should come as no surprise that when I reached out to some of the restaurants that are partnering with the Milwaukee Film Festival for “Commanding the Table,” I received many enthusiastic responses.
I sat down with Suzzette Metcalfe, the owner of the Pasta Tree, who tells me that even though the festival assigned the various food films to different restaurants, she was already a fan of “Commanding the Table,” which came out in October 2016.
“When I saw on Netflix a film about the Brennans and Ella’s life, of course I wanted to watch it.” Metcalfe says. She says she’s watched it at least three times. And, as it turns out, she had a personal connection to one of the celebrity chefs whom Brennan put on the map.
In 1997, Metcalfe says a friend of hers offered her a plane ticket to New Orleans that was set to expire soon, so she could see the Green Bay Packers play against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
“Not only was I there because the Green Bay Packers were in the Super Bowl, but I got to hang out with my family and friends, and cook in an awesome kitchen and meet a really cool guy.”
That “really cool guy” she staged with happened to be Emeril Lagasse.
You’ve heard of him, right?
Lagasse grew up in Massachusetts, traveling to Paris and Lyon, France, to master French cuisine. He worked in various cities across the Northeast, before Brennan hired him at the age of 23 to take command of the kitchen at Commander’s Palace in 1982. In 1990, he left to open his own namesake restaurant in New Orleans, rapidly expanding his empire throughout the next three decades from New Orleans to Las Vegas, Orlando to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is now the chef-proprietor of 14 restaurants, and has become a fixture on the Food Network.
Before Ella would launch the careers of chefs like Lagasse and his predecessor, Paul Prudhomme, she had to overcome a devastating setback: the sudden death of her brother, Owen, shortly before his restaurant, Vieux Carré, was set to relocate. As the film explains, despite the Brennan family name being quite a reliable one, the bank pulled its financial support because it reportedly did not want to work with a woman. But Ella was determined to succeed.
“I understand that it’s not just the love of what you do, it kind of becomes an obligation to make your family proud,” Metcalfe says. “Her brother, who was her mentor, dies of a heart attack at 45 and she’s left going, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? I have all these loans and I’m just kind of getting this restaurant on the map. What do I do? I can’t lose it.'”
Brennan, with the support of architects and partners who agreed to settle debts over years instead of weeks, plowed forward with plans to relocate the restaurant.
“She looked around and asked herself, ‘What is everyone else doing in New Orleans?’ And everyone was doing dinner. So, she said, ‘let’s do breakfast.'”
And so the brunch movement was born.
“Maybe if they had just focused on dinner, they wouldn’t have made it,” Metcalfe muses. “I don’t know. And that’s amazing to me, that she, at her age, could think outside the box.”
Brennan would have other setbacks to overcome, including being fired from Brennan’s by her brother’s family in the 1970s. Ella and her siblings took over Commander’s Palace, while Owen’s sons held onto Brennan’s until a few years ago, when her nephew bought the restaurant back in a bankruptcy court auction.
As we continue talking, it becomes so clear that Brennan has served as an endless source of inspiration to Metcalfe, from the way she pioneered the brunch movement, to the way she largely self-taught herself the ropes of running a restaurant while managing Owen’s restaurant. Metcalfe says after watching the documentary, she felt like she got to know the icon a little better.
“As a female, and seeing how I didn’t go to culinary school either, look where I am,” Metcalfe says to me. “I own a restaurant – a very well-known restaurant, a very highly-respected restaurant. We’ve been in business for 35 years and 11 of the years have been with me and it’s pretty cool just to see another woman. She inspires me.”
“Commanding the Table” will be shown at the Downer Theatre Wednesday, October 11 at 1:30pm and Thursday, October 12 at 4:30pm. For more information on how to buy tickets to see the film, click here.
The Pasta Tree is located at 1503 N. Farwell Avenue. It’s open from 4:30pm to 10:00pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, and from 5:00pm to 10:00pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.