The secret to the 130-year success of Commander's Palace in New Orleans
On an intermittently rainy Saturday, the garden room of Commander's Palace swiftly filled up as diners gathered for the restaurant's famed booze-soaked jazz brunch. A team of servers bustled around, ferrying trays of classic bloody marys, Sazeracs and crisp French sauvignon blanc to diners.
This sprawling restaurant, a robins egg blue mainstay of New Orleans culture since 1893, is nestled in the tree-lined Garden District among Victorian mansions and one historic, moss-covered graveyard. Chefs who have helped write the book on haute Creole cuisine here have included Paul Prudhomme, his successor Emeril Lagasse and, now, Meg Bickford, the first woman to serve as executive chef.
Women have a history of running the show here.
Family matriarch Ella Brennan was part of the team that took ownership of the iconic restaurant in 1974, revamping the interior and the menu, and establishing the scenic garden room by transforming an underused locker room into a sought-after dining spot. Brennan netted the James Beard Awards' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
The Beard's Who’s Who of Food and Beverage recognized current co-proprietors Ti Martin and Lally Brennan in 2018. Commander's Palace has been awarded seven James Beard Awards so far.
But the restaurant's ownership team has not rested on its recognition and continues to innovate, adding new dishes and flavors to the menu while still paying homage to classic Creole recipes.
Commander's is a huge ship, and steering it requires an enormous amount of work behind the scenes. The service staff helps make it happen under Martin and Brennan's watchful guidance. That work continues to pay off, with the James Beard Foundation nominating Commander's Palace for an Outstanding Service Award in 2022.
To see the staff in action, even as a storm threatened, the noise level rose and every seat filled, is to witness a well-oiled machine. Martin explained how it all comes together. The interview has been edited for length.
Southern Kitchen: How does a restaurant this old stay so current and relevant after all this time?
Ti Martin: I actually kind of love the question. Sometimes people want to put us into these stories about restaurants that frankly don't change. Truly our whole thing is pretty much what you just said; the main thing around here is that we're going to evolve. We are not going to stand still. It's not who we are. We'll take all the awards that are given out but I don't care about them. What are we doing tomorrow? What's next, you know? Because none of that matters, right? And we, in fact, will be 130 years old next year.
I wasn't walking in expecting too much of a fusty-dusty experience, but I was still surprised by just how not-stuffy it was.
When you ask most restaurateurs or chefs what business they're in, they'll say the food business. Here at Commander's, we're in the business of creating dining memories.
We work at the hospitality part. We do something around here called Aqua Blue, classes that we give to our team. And it might be on wine, it might be on how to do flaming coffee. We also do classes on finances and how to buy your first house or car. We also have classes about hospitality, obviously. And I can't tell you how often my cousin Lally and I, who's my co-proprietor here, literally model body language that shows it's an honor to serve. We try to teach how to make people feel well cared for with professional but warm service and true, true hospitality. I think a lot of people talk about it, but not so many people put that much effort into it.
One thing that I did notice was our servers were waiting to see what kind of experience we wanted. When they realized we were kind of casual people and we were there to have a good time, the servers adapted.
You could have two guys over here making a business deal like, pretty much leave us alone but we're gonna have some really good wine. You know the gamut of things people might be doing. And I do think our team is good at reading that.
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The service was charming but not at all overbearing.
I'd like to say I had a front-row seat to the food revolution in America. I mean, my mom was this gal named Ella Brennan. She and Paul Prudhomme were here, pushing, pushing, pushing things forward at the beginning of what I call the modern American food movement. And then you had, in my opinion, Jeremiah Tower doing it at Chez Panisse and in New York you had Larry Forgione, and it was amazing to watch this whole revolution.
I want to see the hospitality revolution. Dining out is one of the great pleasures of life. People come in and they're in what we call a bubble. And if we do everything right, we have an absence of negatives, we don't make too many mistakes, they float out on that same bubble. That's what we're looking for.
I want to get an idea of the sheer scale of the operation. At Commander's, there's a team of people around your table and the place is huge. Can you give me a sense of what it takes to pull something like this together?
Well, we've had some practice. We think of the restaurant as four areas, you know, and each area is its own little thing with its own manager. I've got a manager for service in this whole room, I've got a sous chef for this whole thing, I've got a wine expert we call the wine guy because we don't want to take anything too seriously.
We have all this expertise that we can use, whereas when you're almost a one-man band or very few people in a tiny little restaurant, it's rough. We're able to throw all this expertise at our guests, and frankly, it makes it easier, not harder.
We also have good systems. We have a form that we call the short form (with important information about customers). One goes to the front door, one goes to the manager on duty, the Brennan on duty and to the kitchen, so everybody knows what's going on. Everybody knows. We care enough to have that system and then implement it. The system helps us be more hospitable.
How did your family redesign the restaurant to foster better hospitality?
The main thing is that they sort of discovered the garden room, which was the waiters' locker room. Within a week they ripped out the wall and we had the garden room. Normally it's hard to get people to go upstairs in a restaurant, but we don't have that problem.
They basically didn't have any money to speak of, so they had to do whatever they had to do with you know, spit and glue. My aunt convinced everybody else that we're going to paint it this fabulous aqua blue color, and that will really send a message about new management, new everything, we're shaking things up.
I actually was horrified and rode my bike over here and said you cannot paint the restaurant that color because I will not be able to go to school anymore. Every house in the Garden District is beige or white. I was so wrong.
When did you have the idea to do the jazz brunches?
I think it was it was the mid-'70s. My uncle Dick was in Europe and made a transatlantic call, which was highly unusual I assure you at that time. And he's like, "Oh, I got this idea. Instead of doing a stage, we're just going to have the musicians wander about."
The truth of it is that's so New Orleans. Things sort of bubble up from the street. I like it for the dining experience because they're there and then they're not there.
It's a really cool, unobtrusive way to do it.
And that takes management. If we didn't pay any attention to the musicians they'd probably sit in the corner and take 5,000 breaks and they would sing only whatever song you're going to tip them for, and they would sing a lot of sad songs. I'm like, no, upbeat, happy songs. But we can't just sing "Happy Birthday" all day, every day, you know? So try to keep that to a minimum. Not my guys, they're good. A lot of musicians want to come in, but if it's not a regular, that guy is not going to work. You've got to coach them. You've got to manage them.
You watched your family nurture what's become an enduring symbol of hospitality in New Orleans. What was that like?
Well, No. 1, we never believed any of that. We literally think that we're just as good as the last meal we served. Period. My mom and I used to call it healthy paranoia. That's sometimes an uncomfortable place to live, but that's it. Working from that premise every day is really what it's about. You have to be head sheriff, but only if you're head cheerleader, too. You know, and that sounds simplistic, but it's a big part of it.
Commander's Palace New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp
Note: Head-on shrimp are essential because their fat content is what gives this dish some of its flavor. Make sure the shrimp are fresh. Check color, smell and attachment of head and legs. Because of the weight of the head and shells, one pound yields only about 8 ounces of meat. This dish is cooked very fast, so preparation is key. It is critical that the garlic is not burned while cooking the shrimp.
Makes four appetizer portions or two entrees.
2 pounds head-on shrimp, large2 tablespoons Creole seafood seasoning1 tablespoon olive oil1 large head garlic, cloves peeled and minced2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce3 tablespoons hot sauce1 lemon, juice removed, quartered (reserve the juice)1/3 cup beerSalt and pepper to taste1 stick butter, room temperature
Season shrimp with ½ of Creole seafood seasoning and lightly toss.
Preheat a large skillet over high heat, put the oil in the pan, and heat until the oil begins to smoke. Place garlic and rosemary in the pan and stir to brown garlic. Be very careful not to burn.
Add shrimp and carefully stir. Add Worcestershire, hot sauce, lemon juice and lemon quarters.
Deglaze with beer, stirring to release any bits clinging to the bottom, and boil the mixture to reduce while shaking the pan. Allow shrimp to cook 2 to 2 ½ minutes (timing will depend on size) and add remaining seafood seasoning and salt and pepper to taste.
When shrimp are finished cooking, the liquid will have a sauce consistency. Reduce heat to medium high and add butter. Sauté until butter is emulsified and sauce is thick. Adjust seasoning. Remove lemon quarters. Serve with French bread, lots of napkins and finger bowls. Garnish each serving with a lemon piece.
Mackensy Lunsford is a food and culture storyteller for USA Today's South region and editor of Southern Kitchen. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.