Commander’s Palace: CIA of the South
Easily the most famous restaurant in New Orleans, Commander’s Palace has been known for great chefs and fine dining since Emile Commander first opened the property in 1880. By the time, the Brennan family acquired the restaurant in 1969, Commander’s Palace was an established epicurean legend.
The restaurant has also come to serve as an unofficial southern culinary institute. Given the volume of customers – approximately 1200 diners daily – and high expectations for the cuisine, it’s easy to understand why Commander’s has turned out so many great chefs. Moreover, the restaurant’s unrivaled reputation also draws gifted chefs, who in turn train others. The list of notable personalities who have rotated through Commander’s is prodigious! A few of the incredibly talented “graduates” are listed here:
Paul Prudhomme – Considered the first chef to popularize Cajun cuisine
Emeril Lagasse – One of the first celebrity chefs. See more on Emeril Lagasse in this TCO issue
Jim Richard – Owner of Trenasse in New Orleans and Stinky’s Fish Camp, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
Jamie Shannon – Nationally-recognized James Beard winner and cookbook author
David Kinch – James Beard winner and recipient of two Michelin stars for Manressa in Los Gatos, California
Joey Altman – Television personality and spokesperson for Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines
Brian Battistella – Chef/Owner of Battistella’s, Raleigh, North Carolina
Frank Brigtsen -Chef/Owner Brigtsen’s New Orleans
Ray Gruezke – Chef/Owner of Rue 127, New Orleans
Desi Vega – Chef/Owner Desi Vega’s Steakhouse, New Orleans
Danny Trace – Executive Chef at Brennan’s, Houston
Ron Stone – Executive Chef at Wolf Bay Lodge, Orange Beach, Alabama
Jeffrey Hansell – Executive Chef at Veranda on Highland, Birmingham, Alabama
“It’s impossible to go out without running into someone who’s worked at Commander’s,” agrees Ti Adelaide Martin, who is Co-Proprietress of Commander’s Palace along with her cousin Lally Brennan. She adds, laughing, “I always say the only New Orleans chefs who didn’t come through Commander’s are John Besh, Donald Link and Susan Spicer.”
“But, seriously, we’re quite proud of the fact that so many talented chefs have spent time with us. And I feel that I’m particularly lucky to have had a front row seat to watch the ongoing evolution — to see our chefs, and American chefs in general, take their place on the international culinary scene. Used to be we didn’t think anyone could cook unless they came from France. Now some of the top chefs in Paris are American.”
Ti Martin’s front row seat was, of course, provided by her mother, Ella Brennan, the “grande dame” of the family’s restaurant dynasty. “When I was a child, she was always hosting these lavish parties at our house,” Martin recalls. “There were lots of interesting people there from around the world.” And, right next door was the two-story turquoise family heirloom – Commander’s Palace.
Zagat restaurant guide has listed Commander’s Palace as the “Most Popular Restaurant in New Orleans” for 18 years. The property was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America (the real CIA) in 2008 and has won six James Beard awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award for Ella Brennan, in 2009, and Best Chef of the South for Tory McPhail, the current Executive Chef. Wine Spectator gave the restaurant its coveted “Grand Award” for excellence in 2012.
When asked if being in charge of such an iconic treasure is occasionally overwhelming, Ti Martin is unequivocal: “No! Absolutely not! The restaurant’s reputation keeps me motivated. I want to make certain that Commander’s is a place that will continue to make New Orleans proud. And I want to ensure that when our diners come to visit they can relax and have a ball as they always have.”
What about the explosion of new restaurants in New Orleans? “There’s no rational explanation for over 1300 restaurants in this city,” Martin responds. “There were about 800 before Katrina. But Commander’s has always been about evolving. We preserve the things people love about the restaurant, however, we’re not about the past. We’re constantly tweaking the menu and looking to improve.”
“I also feel,” she continues emphatically, “that our service has consistently set us apart. We’re one of the few restaurants that still has a maitre d’ — as opposed to what I call the ‘Bimbo at the Door.’ And we’ve maintained our captains, room managers and kitchen runners. We have numerous service points and, importantly, we teach our staff how to interact with our customers using warmth and humor.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Commander’s closed for 13 months to rebuild. The $6.5 million renovation of the main dining room and foyer were extensive and 80% of the kitchen equipment was replaced. Now, hand-painted murals have been replaced with historic Audubon scenes, complete with embroidered three-dimensional birds that silently flutter above the banquettes and elegant chandeliers.
After the Pandemic, Meg Bickford, has become the first woman chef to oversee the landmark restaurant. Born in Louisiana, Chef Bickford rose through the ranks at Commander’s, serving as executive chef at Cafe Adelaide and then training under Tory McPhail. Bickford assisted McPhail as he updated the restaurant’s Haute Creole menu with innovations such as Oyster and Absinthe Dome with Bacon, Artichokes, Absinthe, and Cream, under a flaky pastry shell; Quail with Bacon-Braised Vidalia Onions & Cochon de Lait Boudin in Grand Marnier Sugarcane Lacquer.
Now in charge of her own menu, Chef Bickford is planning to introduce Vietnamese flavors. Needless to say, the signature desserts, Creole Créme Brûlée, Bananas Foster flambéed table side and the famous Bread Pudding Soufflé will remain on the menu.
And, most essentially, Commander’s exudes New Orleans-style joie de vivre. “It’s the one thing that really sets us apart,” Ti Martin observes. “In other cities and places, people tend to put one foot in front of the other and just walk through life. That doesn’t happen here in New Orleans. We understand that life is to be lived. And I’m not talking about hanging out on Bourbon St. I’m talking about enjoying life and family and friends. Here in New Orleans, we don’t arrive at the grave with many regrets. We’ve done the things we wanted to do.”