It was the end of a New Orleans April night at Commander’s Palace and Ti Adelaide Martin was left asking herself a rather wistful question. “I thought to myself, how did I get this gig?” she says.
Given that she is the daughter of the “grande dame” Ella Brennan, known simply as Miss Ella around these parts, there is no real mystery. But this was not a literal question. As Ti Martin walked from table to table, she was reminded again why the legendary family-run operation might not be utopia. “But it is as close as I’ve ever been to it,” she says. An ambassador was enjoying a dinner at one table. A lady checking off a box on her bucket list was at another. She then sent a couple celebrating their 55th anniversary onto the patio with some Champagne.
“It was just that everywhere I went was joy. And I literally say that about Commander’s. We have other restaurants and we work other places that we love and enjoy and have fun, but Commander’s Palace is just a happy place,” she says. “People are happy and excited to be there, and as long as we don’t muck it up, they leave the same way.”
Commander’s Palace has sat docked in the Garden District since 1893. And since the Brennan family purchased the property in 1969, it has collected six James Beard Awards, including Outstanding Restaurant (1996), Outstanding Service (1993), and a Lifetime Achievement Award for Ella Brennan, the 91-year-old luminary who still lives next door. That same night, in a scene so New Orleans the memory drips Southern charm, Ti Martin stopped by and shared an Old-Fashioned with her mother before heading home.
The previous day, she made a stop to grab a thread and needle to help a waiter whose pants split during a shift. When Ella, Dottie, Dick, and John Brennan took over supervision of the restaurant in 1974, they injected these family-first values into the operation.
“When I look at restaurants that have really thrived long term or done really well, it always seems to be a partnership or a team,” Ti Martin says. “Places that are really all about one person don’t seem to last that long. We’ve been blessed to be a family business.”
Anybody who works with family will tell you, though, that it’s not all Christmas presents and charades. Yet it works here, and it has for decades. Lally Brennan, Ti Martin’s first cousin, is the co-proprietor, and one of her closest allies.
“We have a tremendous philosophy of trust and respect among each other,” she says. “Even though there’s like five of us running the place, if we’re the parents and the rest of the staff are the kids, they can’t pit us against each other because there’s no air between us. We completely have each other’s back and just know what the other person would have thought or done. It makes operating completely different than trying to do everything yourself.”
It’s all about playing different roles, she adds. “Who is good at what; OK, you go do that. You know what I mean? We’re not all good at the same thing. We’re complementary instead of running around stepping on each other doing the same thing,” Ti Martin says.
And even those who aren’t related might as well be. Steve Woodruff, the operations manager, has been a part of the restaurant group, which also includes SoBou, Brennan’s of Houston, and Cafe Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar, since 1989. General manager Don Strunk has been on the team for more than a decade.
There was a brief interlude when Ti Martin thought she might do something else. On advice from her mother, she went and got an MBA, worked in real estate in Houston, and lived life away from the aqua blue restaurant’s sizable shadow.
“I think it’s a mistake to go right into a family business; I really do,” she says.
Ti Martin returned in 1986. That color, by the way, which can be bought by the paint can in New Orleans, was her Aunt Adelaide’s doing. Ti, a childhood moniker short for petite or small in French, rode by the restaurant on her bike one day and hit the breaks at the sight of the once-beige restaurant turned blue.
“I was horrified. Good thing they didn’t listen to me, you know?” she says. “My family can be a bit eccentric.”
The food has remained consistently excellent thanks to some megawatt chefs. Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse were followed by the late Jamie Shannon. Now, Tory McPhail, winner of the James Beard Best Chef: South award in 2013, runs the kitchen. He continues to drive the restaurant’s menu forward while paying homage to its past.
“We might hold the keys to Commander’s, but it belongs to New Orleans,” Ti Martin says. “We just try to live up to that every day. We truly operate with the philosophy that we’re as good as the last meal we serve. We don’t think of ourselves as a classic restaurant in those terms. For us it’s about perpetually evolving. Everything we do we want to push and change and continue to do better. That comes naturally to us. The hardest thing for us would be to not change.”