Review from NOFF – Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table

ella_brennan_poster_finalELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE
Director Leslie Iwerks
World Premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival
Run time 96 min

At the age of ninety, Ella Brennan stands in her kitchen looking like a captain guiding her crew through a storm. She checks each plate, expedites service, and makes sure everything leaving the kitchen at Commanders Palace is up to her exacting specifications. The very next moment, she is dancing through the dining room, making jokes, kissing cheeks, and making sure that everyone feels like they are family at her landmark restaurant. But it was a very tough road to get there.

This documentary focused on the amazing life of New Orleans food icon, Ella Brennan. Beginning with the Brennan’s first restaurant opening in the 1940’s and spanning to today, it paints the picture of what it means to build a food empire and the work it takes to become an icon. It is no exaggeration to say that the Brennans, and Ella in particular, changed not only New Orleans cuisine, but what it meant to serve American cuisine. Her pioneering chefs took local dishes and combined them with elegant techniques to break from the idea that one had to serve French cuisine to be considered fancy.

Where would New Orleans be without the Jazz brunch, bananas foster, or people like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse? All these were invented or mastered under the tutelage of Ella Brennan in her pressure cooker known as Commanders Palace. When she started in the restaurant business, New Orleans was said to be a city of 500 restaurants and 5 recipes. It was also said no Irish person could make food worthy of New Orleans. This film certainly shows the folly of that assumption.

I do not exaggerate when I call this film the next JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI. Ella is a warm, funny woman with a fire in her eyes that draws you in the moment the film starts and makes you fall in love with her at the end. The movie is a love letter to not only Ella, but the city of New Orleans and the concept of American cuisine in general. One cannot mention names like James Beard, Alice Waters, and Julia Child without putting Ella Brennan’s name in the mix as well. Outside the city, she may not be known as well as the others, but this film will certainly help to place her name among the greatest chefs in America where it belongs. Much like eating at Commanders Palace, watching this movie will make you yearn to keep coming back.
-Bryan VanMeter