By Lauren Kramer, Contributing Editor
Published on Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Family conflicts can break a business and leave bad vibes for generations to come, but sometimes they pave the way for innovation and fresh starts. Such is the case with Brennan’s, a New Orleans restaurant that opened in a 220-year-old building on Royal Street back in 1956.
Ralph Brennan, 63, the present-day owner, grew up in the restaurant and had fond memories of busing tables and working his way through college as a server. But a family rift in 1974 saw two arms of the family parting company. Ralph’s three cousins got ownership rights for Brennan’s, while Ralph’s immediate family established a new restaurant, Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans. Over the four decades that followed there was little communication between the two sides. His passion for the restaurant business undimmed over the years, Ralph focused on building the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. Today that business that includes seven restaurants and a catering and events company. The Red Fish Grill, Jazz Kitchen, Ralph’s on the Park, Café B, Café Noma and Heritage Grill are all his creations.
Then, in July 2013, Ralph Brennan got wind that Brennan’s Restaurant had closed its doors and the business was in foreclosure. He’d known there were troubled waters for a couple of years and had engaged his cousins in conversations about helping out but to no avail. “I didn’t want the business to go outside of the family, because it had a lot of sentimental value to me,” he said. “When I heard about the opportunity to buy Brennan’s, I jumped at it.”
Ralph and his business partner Terry White paid over USD 6 million (EUR 5.3 million) for the 16,000-square-foot building and closed its doors for 17 months as they planned a complete overhaul that brought the total bill to an estimated USD 20 million (EUR 17.7 million).
Repairs were direly needed. All the mechanical systems had to be replaced and two new kitchens added before the 350-seat New Orleans institution could re-open, restored to its former glory. That day came in November 2014, after New York-based interior designer Keith Langham had put his flourish on rooms that recognized the past with old-fashioned Southern elegance and European influences. Step into the restaurant and it’s as if you’ve turned the clock back two centuries. Each of the five dining rooms tells its own specific story.
Ralph hired Executive Chef Slade Rushing to preside over Brennan’s kitchens, enamored by the chef’s pedigree and his commitment to a lighter style of cooking. Both men were determined to retain the old Brennan’s most popular menu offerings while showcasing the rich selection of Gulf seafood.
As he revamped the menu, Rushing tried to stay true to the old Brennan’s during the brunch hours, choosing the dinner service to elaborate on his personal culinary style, which he describes as “classic French food” and “more progressive.”
“We’re really focused on Gulf seafood because that’s what New Orleans is all about,” he explained. From time to time he offers lobsters from Maine or Canada and Portuguese octopus, but mostly, the menu is local and seasonal. Regular seafood on the menu includes pompano, drum, flounder, grouper, red snapper, amberjack, speckled trout, oysters and shrimp.
Thanks to its many restaurants, the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group has incredible buying power, Rushing said. “That gives me a great opportunity to buy things before other people might —Ralph’s restaurants are on such a large scale that suppliers try to sell to him, first.” He estimates the restaurant group buys up to 4,000 pounds of seafood at a time, with 250 to 300 pounds used by Brennan’s alone.
Kitty Polk, at the helm of purchasing, has worked for the Brennan family since 1989 and has strong, loyal relationships with local seafood vendors including American Seafood Company and New Orleans Fish Company. “The beauty of our relationships with them is that when supply is low, we can always count on our purveyor to take care of our needs first,” she said. “Occasionally I’ll use an out-of-town company such as Hawaiian Fish Co. or Halpern’s Meat & Seafood in Atlanta, but our objective is to source local, fresh, seasonal fish and seafood.”
Rushing is planning to add more seafood species to the menu as summer 2015 approaches. He said he was determined to make his menu innovative.
“On the old Brennan’s menu there were a lot of derivatives of things — for example, they used the same fish 20 different ways, which gave the illusion of a bountiful menu. Now, we actually have that bounty. We’re buying more of a variety of fish species, taking the menu from four species up to 10 or 12, and we’re just getting started. We’re trying to appeal to three types of diners: The local New Orleanean, the ‘new diner’ who is more sophisticated, understands the seasonality of farmers’ markets and wants a Creole flavor, and the tourist.”
In January 2015 the brunch menu featured pompano a la plancha, crab, lobster, fried oyster salad, shrimp salad and Creole spiced black drum, as well as seafood gumbo. The dinner menu added seared tuna, flounder a la meunière, octopus and hamachi crudo to the selection. Signature dishes include the deconstructed oysters Rockefeller and the crab remoulade, while the pompano a la plancha, served with confit tomatoes and crabmeat in a brown butter sauce, is a top seller.
“We’re trying to get our local customers to return,” Ralph added. “Over the years Brennan’s had become touristy and many locals stopped coming regularly. Now, thanks to lots of media coverage by the Times Picayune, which followed our renovation story, local guests are coming back to give us a try.”