The new "Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook," reviewed in this week's Gambit, is destined to be a hard-working cookbook. Though it was published in the elegant format of a coffee table book, this weighty volume is clearly intended to be used in the kitchen where its thorough advice on seafood selection, handling and preparation will be invaluable to those who weren't necessarily brought up shucking oysters and catching redfish.
But there is a small narrative element to the book as well, and right up front the lead author and restaurateur Ralph Brennan shares a few stories about his own upbringing in the city's most important restaurant family. In particular, he provides a touching account of childhood romps through his extended family's original restaurant, Brennan's on Royal Street, and a succinct assessment of the quarrel that has famously divided the family since 1974.
During an interview, Brennan shared more about those young experiences at the family restaurant in the 1960s, when his aunts Ella and Adelaide Brennan would take him out on day trips.
"My aunts were the right age, I was the right age, and we would have a lot of fun together," he says.
After taking in a movie at one of the then-many downtown cinemas, they would stroll over to Brennan's, where the aunts would talk business and young Ralph would be cut loose.
"I had to entertain myself at the restaurant. It was fascinating, that old building, everything. I could run around the kitchen. I'd be behind the bar. The bartenders would show me how to make milk punch. It was fun growing up there," he says today.
He had his first job at Brennan's too, peeling shrimp and doing similar prep work in the kitchen.
"But I got caught up in the split between the family," he says. "When things happened, I didn't have a job."
He explains the split as a "difference in philosophy" between family members and leaves it at that, which seems like a properly diplomatic way to handle inquires about very old news.
Brennan went on to earn an accounting degree and worked for six years in the local office of the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers as a CPA. Eventually, his aunt Ella brought him back into the fold, offering him a position at Commander's Palace and later sending him the family's then-new Mr. B's Bistro, where he eventually became general manager.
He says the accounting background would help him later as he launched and ran his own restaurants. But I have to imagine those childhood adventures behind the scenes of Brennan's in its heyday rooted something in him that goes deeper than business management skills.
- Ian McNulty