Jun 29 2017

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table is another Netflix biopic worth a look

maureen


As a foodie and lover of New Orleans, the documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table was a great Netflix find. Oscar and Emmy nominated director Leslie Iwerks chronicles the life of Ella Brennan, owner of famed New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace. This documentary covers a lot of bases. It’s a clinic on success in the hospitality industry. It’s a feminist tale about women who excel and lead through dedication, confidence, and hard work. It’s a story about family relationships. It’s a revealing look at how cuisine evolves. It’s another powerful Katrina recovery story. It’s about starting over when life is a mess.

Told through a series of interviews and voice-over narration the documentary serves as an entertaining overview of Ella’s life. 18-year-old Ella Brennan started out working in her brother’s bar on Bourbon Street and became an international influence on cuisine and mentor to some great chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. So many of the sub-plots in Ella’s real life story could have been documentaries of their own.

My favorite thread running through this documentary was Ella Brennan’s self-education. She knew nothing about food when she got started. She read. She talked to people who knew. She traveled to places where popular cuisine was being developed. She tried out new ideas. She formed relationships with influencers and shared ideas. Success doesn’t seem to be about the fame or the money for her. Her motives appears to be that she wants to offer customers a great dining experience and nurture creativity and community among her employees. Ella Brennan, even an 91, seems to be genuinely interested in continuing to learn and grow. Anyone who wants to be successful in any field can learn from Ella’s example.

I loved the restoration cycle in her story as well. Brennan’s is a famous New Orleans restaurant. From the early 1950’s until 1974 Ella Brennan poured herself into making it one of the best restaurants in the world. Just as Ella was going through a painful divorce she was fired from the restaurant that bore her family’s name. She started over as a single mother in her 50’s with Commander’s Palace, which was far from a palace when she took it over. She built that into something even greater. It was heavily damaged by Katrina. Ella, then in her 70’s, was a driving force in rebuilding it with other family members. Eventually Brennan’s came back into the family and Ella walked back in after 40 years.

Where you stop telling a story determines its genre. So many people make tragedies of their own stories by setting themselves up for failure or quitting in defeat. Stop Ella’s story at being 18, uneducated, and a woman and you get a story about the path of least resistance. Stop Ella’s story at being fired and you get a story about failure and family villains. Stop at Katrina and you get a disaster story. Stop at the pinnacle of success and you get a shallow fable. It’s refreshing to watch a story in which someone’s attitude and choices tell a story about an abundant and successful life. The last scenes in the film show Ella, at 91 is still not through learning or telling her story.