As a city known for parades, festivals, cocktails, and cuisine, New Orleans is the place to celebrate the best in life. One way to delve deep into the Southern Food scene and rub elbows with the movers, shakers, and thinkers behind Nola’s culinary brilliance is by attending NOWFE, the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. As avid advocates of Nola’s culinary history, we decided a recent post-Covid visit was long overdue. NOWFE was back to 100% capacity, and we were eager to see our beloved culinary city back in action at one of the 10 Best General Food Festivals and Best Wine Festivals deemed by USA Today. NOWFE raises over 1.5 million for local non-profit organizations. Each year a recipient is honored in the memory of local culinary grand dame Ella Brennan. Being the 30th-anniversary event, the annual Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award Gala honored local Chef Frank Brigtsen as an outstanding chef whose contribution to leadership, personal, professional, and philanthropic contributions. Frank began his fifty-plus year career as a culinary apprenticeship under Paul Prudhomme at Commander’s Palace.
Leading the culinary world for over 70 years, Ella Brennan was ahead of her time in overcoming a male-dominated business. She took the helm, and her spirit reigns the culinary world. Just as the ubiquitous blue and white striped awnings of the Commander’s wave against the hanging moss-covered trees, Ella’s hospitality essence elevates the very fabric and foundation of New Orleans and the foundation of this iconic restaurant. Ella exuded unparalleled exactness, giving her the accolade of the James Beard lifetime award in 2009.
New Orleans has many jewels in its crown. For an authentic NOLA experience, we jumped on the Green Trolly of the famed “St Charles Steet Car Line”, the oldest and most notable line. Our emotions swelled up as we sat back, relaxed, rode past ancient tree-lined streets and Antebellum homes, and arrived at Commander’s Palace, nestled in the renowned tree-lined Garden District.
A New Orleans landmark since 1893. It has been for the award-winning quality of its food and its classic southern atmosphere. The history of this famous restaurant offers a glimpse into New Orleans’ storied past. It is the go-to destination for Haute Creole cuisine and Louisiana charm. Commander’s Palace offers culinary lore, earning seven James Beard Foundation Awards.
Ella, Dottie, Dick, and John Brennan took over personal supervision of the restaurant in 1974; they began to give the splendid landmark a new look both inside and out, including painting the iconic “Commander’s Blue outside.”
Now at the helm, co-proprietor’s daughter Ti Adelaide Martin and niece Lally Brennan make sure the Brennan family’s dedication to perfection has never wavered. Ella Brennan had an innate ability to cultivate the culinary careers of some of the best chefs on the New Orleans linage. Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jamie Shannon, Tory McPhail, and now Meg Bickford have made Commander’s Palace the world-class restaurant that it is today, and its leading-edge Haute Creole cuisine reflects the best of the city. Chef Megan “Meg” Bickford has called the Commander’s Palace kitchen her culinary home since June 2008 and took on the role of Executive Chef in October 2020.
“Meg has always been a spitfire in the kitchen, a ball of energy with eyes darting about, seeing, and learning everything; she is small but mighty and has the complete respect of our entire kitchen and restaurant. There is a sparkle in her eye and magic in those hands,” said Lally Brennan, who joined us at our table.
“For me, the future seems hidden in the past. Studying New Orleans and Louisiana cooking inspires me to see where the past can intersect with the future. The possibilities seem endless,” shares Bickford
Our “dirt to plate within 100 miles” policy means that we strive for 90% of our ingredients to come from within 100 miles of our back door.” she added with a smile.
We started our Commander culinary sojourn with their Summer Squash Burrata. This Local summer squash ratatouille roasted in a black cast iron skillet with cane-cured heirloom tomatoes, black summer truffle & preserved lemon olive oil over molten burrata cheese studded with a basil pistou, and charred olive bread awaked our palates in an extraordinary way. With the humid summer upon us, we chose to stay local and wild with Chef Meg’s Shrimp & Tasso Henican. Fresh Wild Louisiana white shrimp, tasso ham, pickled okra, sweet onions, five pepper jelly, and Crystal hot sauce beurre blanc put a smile on our faces. But there was so much more ahead.
Being so close to the Gulf, Smoked Gulf Fish Maque Choux was certainly in order. Crispy smoked Gulf fish & Louisiana wild shrimp croquette atop sweet corn, Creole tomatoes, roasted peppers, fennel & okra, and poblano aioli had us feeling right at home. When we are in the iconic culinary city Gumbo is always on our shortlist. And being that we are with New Orleans royalty, Commander’s Creole Gumbo was of course, mandatory! Low, rich stock slow cooked in a dark cast-iron roux took us back hundreds of years of creole, culinary history.
As always, Commanders Place and the Brennan’s do it right yearly, decade after decade. As a long-time friend and patron, Sheryl Thompson said, “New Orleanians enjoy and support Commander’s because it is unpretentious. Food quality and presentation are always consistent and of the highest level, and they focus on impeccable service. Family involvement is in every aspect of the restaurant. They greet you at the front door and find time to support foundations.”
Any visit to New Orleans should include an experience at this legendary landmark. “How did you fall in love with New Orleans? At once, madly. Looking back, sometimes I think it was predestined,” -Andrei Codrescu once mused. Begin at Commander’s Palace, and you will fall in love with New Orleans through the glorious food, service, and the extraordinary people who make it all possible.