Filmmaker Leslie Iwerks is known for documentaries about Pixar, the Hearst family and her grandfather, Ub Iwerks, co-creator of Mickey Mouse. Her latest documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, about restaurateur Ella Brennan, screens at the New Orleans Film Festival at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at The Orpheum Theater. The film focuses on Brennan's career, from her going to work with her older brother Owen Brennan to her leadership co-founding and presiding over Commander's Palace, where she fostered the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon and Tory McPhail. Iwerks spoke with Gambit about Ella Brennan.
What was your personal impression of Brennan?
Iwerks: I think Ella is such an extraordinarily well-rounded person. She's so smart. Having dinner with her one night, we talked about every subject under the sun. She's so engaging and personal and complimentary and kind. I got the sense of why and how she was able to lead two businesses from scratch and attract the type of clients and customer base she did. It's because of her personality. I was struck by her intelligence and drive.
She was an incredible leader and knows how to motivate and how to inspire and bring out the best in people. She is to food what (Motown founder) Berry Gordy was to music. He was able to bring in raw talent and polish them and put them through a training ground and they came out the other side superstars. I felt it was a similar scenario with Ella. She could take a risk on someone, but she has great instincts. She can look at Paul Prudhomme, a guy from Cajun country, and everybody might pooh-pooh that. But she'd take a risk.
What made her successful as a restaurateur?
I: She saw the restaurant in a holistic way. So it was about the moment people walk in the front door and how they're greeted and how they're seated — to how their meal is going to be presented on the back side, how that food is being prepared. Each plate had to tell a story in her mind. She was always asking each chef, "Why?" She'd say, "You have to tell me why." Make a case for your new dish. That's what Emeril communicated to me. You had to prove yourself to her. ... She's very direct. I like that about her. ... "That's not good enough. You have to do better. Bring it back when it's ready."
What was the hardest thing she overcame?
I: I think Owen's death (in November 1955) was probably the hardest thing. It set her on a path of do-or-die. Own your self-confidence. Know what you need to do and just do it. It was survival of the fittest for the family keeping (Brennan's) on track. Enthusiasm and love for Owen helped them continue his dream. That family has an amazing reputation for hospitality. I think there is a natural charm that Ella had that continued to build on itself.
She is a lot like others of her generation. Go full bore and do it. If you have a hurdle, you have to just overcome it. You don't spend a lot of time wallowing in setback. My dad is the same way. That generation, the World War II generation, is like that. The mentality — Ella was a real doer.