One night recently at Commander's Palace the two reigning queens of New Orleans cuisine shared a table and, for a moment, the spotlight. It got me thinking about the long game, one so long we can't even see it amid the hubbub of what's new, who's ranked where, and which spot is getting all the attention. It got me thinking about the future, and who’s next.
The setting was a book launch party for Ella Brennan. Forty years ago she started the restaurant Commander's Palace and now she has a new book out, a memoir of her life as a New Orleans restaurateur. One of the guests at this party was Leah Chase, who’s the embodiment of Dooky Chase's Restaurant, and she was at the head table to share her thoughts with the crowd.
Just stop for a second and think about that. Ella Brennan, Leah Chase, what they mean to New Orleans cuisine, sitting at the same table. Seeing these two ladies together was like looking upon a Mount Rushmore of Creole cuisine in progress.
And so the question: Who’s next? Who from the many generations that follow Ella Brennan and Leah Chase will New Orleans look to with this kind of reverence and adoration?
We have restaurant industry leaders today who inspire and innovate. But Leah Chase and Ella Brennan aren’t just leaders now. They’re true icons who share a calling pursued along different paths.
Chase is 93, and Brennan is three years her junior. Each led renowned New Orleans restaurants during an era when a woman in charge was noteworthy on its own. But that was only for starters. As they lived through the last half century of New Orleans history, each influenced that history in different ways.
Food has an outsized grip on the attention and imagination of New Orleans, and those who achieve success and fame in its realm can have an influence far beyond the plate.
It’s impossible to say who among those now working in New Orleans cuisine will be so honored in the decades to come. You need a little distance to put that kind of impact in perspective.
But, I'll wager those who do will share some of the qualities that Ella Brennan and Leah Chase bring to the table.
Both have used their prominence and the access that their field affords to other movers and shakers to champion causes and stump for their communities. And one on one, the evidence of their everyday inspiration on the lives of others are legend.
They’ve earned roles in the story of their epic city that can’t be tracked by awards, business accolades or restaurant rankings. They’ve won the regard of New Orleans because of who they are and what they've done.
I can’t predict who we might be toasting in this way a generation from now. But we should all be on watch for the qualities that contribute to new contenders.
Our food culture, our restaurant industry and our city of New Orleans overall can sure use more of the stuff that have made Ella Brennan and Leah Chase living legends.