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As Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, the new documentary currently on Netflix, makes clear, sometimes interesting lives make for uninteresting films. Perhaps we get the wrong idea because written biographies often span an entire life, so we think films, too, should be capable of cradle-to-grave coverage. But that’s seldom the case. Sentences and paragraphs rely on the reader’s own locomotion. A book allows you to wander through the rooms of the subject’s life at leisure. But a film, flickering by automatically, needs perspective, angles, some things in the distance, and others things up close, to work. When it fails to find its focus, the result is dull, no matter how brilliant the subject might be.
To say that this film, directed by Leslie Iwerks and executive produced by Debra Shriver, is not very good is in no way a judgment on the actual life of Ella Brennan, matriarch of Commander’s Palace, the bright blue beacon of old new New Orleans cuisine since 1974. The interestingness of her nine decades is available for consumption in Brett Anderson’s recent New York Times profile and in her own memoir, Miss Ella of Commander’s Palace.
It is also apparent in a brief precis of her life: Ella Brennan remade the New Orleans restaurant scene at a time when few Irish and even fewer women were professional restaurateurs. At 91, she continues to exert great gravitational sway on New Orleans food — and thus American food — as the commander of Commander’s Palace, presiding over decisions large and small from her abutting apartment.
But as the hour-and-a-half long film slogs past the milestones of her personal and professional years, it is neither in-depth enough or brief enough to maintain this viewer’s interest. Iwerks, who has worked mostly in corporate films, and Shriver, a Alabama-born bigwig at Hearst whose 2010 book Stealing Magnolia: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyards detailed the “saga” of restoring a mansion after Hurricane Katrina on weekends and was published by a company called Glitterati, are so enthralled in the Brennan bunch the documentary can — and I’m sure will — do double duty as training for the family’s 1,500 employees.
The name Brennan echoes with a weight in the history of New Orleans restaurants that Keith McNally can only envy in New York. The family’s dining legacy dates back to 1946, when Owen Brennan, Ella’s older brother, founded Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carré, a tremendously popular restaurant for which young Ella was the driving force, the handyman, and the steady hand. When Owen died at 45, on the eve of the restaurant’s relocation, it fell to young Ella to take over the reins, which she did.
Perhaps most interesting to those who don’t find restaurant history automatically fascinating are the parallels between then and now. For instance, Vieux Carré lost its lease in 1946 after the owner jacked up the rent. Also echoing through time: the anointing, as if from on high, by culinary illuminati. In this case, young Ella Brennan was swooped up under the wing of Helen McCully and James Beard, who brought her to New York and championed the young restaurateur to all their media friends. Yes, before the Beard Awards of today, there was an actual Beard who bestowed his Midas imprimatur upon worthies in person.
For the most part, Brennan’s life as seen through the film is a steady upward climb. There were dark days — notably her marriage to an alcoholic named Paul Martin, and a bitter family split in 1974 during which she was fired by Owen’s widow from Brennan’s — but these are skipped over like negative space in a floral print pattern. Perhaps it is only my miserable-fuck temperament, but I’m hopelessly curious and interested in how, for instance, Miss Ella dealt with her drunk husband Paul, the father of her two children, while running a successful restaurant. I would like to know beyond opaque anodyne pronouncements of tragedy what it is really like to have one’s family torn asunder by greed, ambition, and fury. The devil is in the details, but so too are the angels.
There can be no denying Brennan’s vast influence. So much of what she created at Brennan’s and later at Commander’s Palace is still with us today. Bananas Foster, for instance, which is to me the best dessert in the world ever, came to her in a flash in 1954, at Brennan’s. At Commander’s Palace, she instituted the jazz brunch which now, for better or worse, has infected cities across America like a french toast and “Take Five” plague. But at its source, the Commander’s Palace jazz brunch is a thing of pure joy.
By championing chefs like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse at a time when Creole cuisine was looked down upon by gourmands, it is Ella’s invisible hand that brought trout meunière, pompano en papillote, jambalaya, and shrimp etouffé to countless gussied-up Creole restaurants around the country. Yet when she first tapped Prudhomme in 1975 and continued with Lagasse in 1985 (btw, young Emeril is hot AF), it was considered a ballsy move to go Creole rather than French. And she continued bucking the trend when she hired a Jersey boy, Jamie Shannon, in 1990. (Shannon, in another point dealt with in cursory fashion, died in 2001 at age 40.)
This gentle allusion to class and regional consciousness and prejudice of Creole cuisine is about as deep as the filmmakers ever get to anything a little more substantial than simply gilding the lily. In fact, apart from the film’s emphasis-free panorama, what struck me is the blithe ignorance with which the filmmakers regard race. Besides Leah Chase, who makes one brief talking cameo, this is an exclusively white story. The patrons are white. The chefs are white. All those who extol Ms. Brennan’s moxie are white. There are black bodies, mostly seen blurred in the background in archival photographs of the kitchen. Fats Pichon, a pianist, is mentioned as being an entertainer at the Old Absinthe House. But beyond tickling the ivories, there’s bupkis.
Worse than bupkis, there’s whitewashing. For instance, Patricia Clarkson, the narrator, explains early on, “For 300 years, New Orleans welcomed waves of immigrants from France, Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean. The blending of cultures fused together to create a unique regional identity.” I’m not sure the waves of African and Caribbean immigrants would characterize their reception as welcoming or themselves as immigrants.
Look, just because Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table is on Netflix doesn’t mean it has to be Dear White People. But in New Orleans, of all places, and when talking about foodways, the silence is abrasive. Especially when it comes to the Brennans, whose most famous dessert, as a recent NPR piece pointed out, relied on the notoriously brutal banana trade. And especially when it is a story about breaking traditional norms.
It’s a credit to Ella Brennan that her charm and charisma still shine through such poor filmmaking. And it’s to her credit as well that I imagine after taking one look at the doc, she’d say, “Too sweet. Too bland, no fun. Send it back and bring me the hard stuff.”
Rating: 1/5 stars