Oh boy! We caught the documentary, "Ella Brennan : Commanding a Table," at the Dallas International Film Festival and what a motivating and inspiring story! Just a lovely showcase of ambition, teamwork, leadership and innovation.
The Brennan family first rose to culinary fame with their New Orleans restaurant, Brennans. Then, when a sister-in-law tossed out the Brennans once she had enough stock ownership, Ella built Commander's Palace which became one of the best restaurants in the world and is still, today.
Ella was a matriarch in the American restaurant business when women didn't get those kinds of opportunities - it just wasn't done. Thrust into managing her brother's restaurant in her early twenties, she studied, worked 6-7 day weeks (until she was 79!) and led with a kind, encouraging, firm hand which groomed many a celebrity chef and had all who worked with her in total devotion and lifelong friendship.
Well, that's a way to build a business. To run an enterprise. To live a life.
Here are take aways from the doc about this awesome woman and businessperson...
1. Teamwork. Systems. A well-oiled machine.
In order to keep things...in order...tons of little systems were created both in the kitchen and on the floor of restaurants. She came up with the idea of food runners, signals on the tables to know if drink orders had been taken, reservation questions which allowed servers to know about the guests before they even arrived.
2. Absence of Negatives
What a term. Her daughter said it when describing the environment her mother brought to their spaces - for both the employees and guests. Ella created a bubble where everything was smooth, delightful and satisfactory. She discouraged a young Emeril Lagasse from acting out with ego in the kitchen. She insisted upon an environment of kindness and friendship - the way she treated all people.
3. Encouragement of Individuality
Every time she brought in a new chef, Ella pressed them to bring their own touch to every dish. Do the same dish but your way - how can we be inventive with this, again, anew, with your hand? Trusting each chef she hired to do what they do best, she fully supported experimentation until perfection.
4. Passing the Torch / Teaching
Ella knows a successful ship comes from everyone's role being acknowledged as important and valued. Part of this means continually teaching, moving up from the inside and grooming the new guard. This mentality is practiced from leadership to busboys. Quality time is spent keeping those at lower levels in the loop and contributing.
5. Taking Cues from Other Industries / Invention
Constantly studying, traveling, reading, meeting with others, Ella always challenged herself to innovate in unique ways. "They are doing this in the airline industry...this on Wall Street...how can I bring those ideas to my restaurant..." When anything felt stagnant, she asked herself, "what can we do that's interesting?" She brought breakfast and brunch to the forefront with cocktails and live jazz and pretty much the rest of the world followed suit. Under her tutelage, bananas foster was invented.
6. Embracing Local Ideas, Sourcing and Community
Before farm-to-table was a thing, Ella was doing it. She brought cajun food to American fine dining by supporting chefs who embraced what was readily available from local farms and waters. She offered an entirely American, largely Californian wine list, when French wine was still the standard. These practices not only started local movements nationwide, they also supported local growers, fishermen and makers. And beyond that, when Katrina devastated New Orleans, she was first in line to help other restaurants get back up and running while doing the same for her own.
7. Never Straying from her Feminine Nature
Ella is an astute business person. But also, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a woman. Rather than take on typical aspects of male leadership energies, even at a time when she was the only woman, for decades, running a top restaurant, she stuck to her nature. Kindness. Inclusiveness. Family values and commitment. Treating everyone as she would a friend. Love.
We need more of this in all business. It does not deter from success. Women have taken on many qualities that are natural to men in the business world. The vice-versa needs to happen more, too! An injection of calm love does not mean defeat. It offers strength, stability and peace. And what the world needs now...