Creole Confidential

By John DeMers

Photography by: Julie Soefer

July 2014 Issue

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Many years ago in New Orleans, the matriarch of the Brennan family was asked for one single statement that described and defined her way of running restaurants. "Miz Ella" looked ahead without blinking and pronounced, "I want my people to soar."

Back then, her words referred to Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme, who had left the family's Big Easy flagship, Commander's Palace, with their blessing, to change the food world as we know it. Yet even now, Ella Brennan's "People" at storied, 47-year-old outpost Brennan's of Houston (3300 Smith St. 713.522.9711) are not only soaring but also showing the flight path to others.

Just ask newly minted James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd of Underbelly; Randy Evans of seed-to-plate pioneer Haven; Mark Holley of the new Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar; Kevin Naderi of cult favorite Roost and the new Lillo & Ella; Mark Cox of the five-star classic Mark's American Cuisine; Lance Fegan of absurdly popular Liberty Kitchen and its sister restaurants; Jamie Zelko of quaint and beloved Zelko Bistro; and Eatsie Boys, among others, how they know what they know. Their former experience at the brick-and-wrought-iron restaurant on Smith Street will likely be cited.

"It's pretty wild to see all the people who started their careers by passing through the line at Brennan's," says General Manager Carl Walker, a former Marine Corps chef and Culinary Institute of America grad who trained as a chef in New Orleans under Lagasse and then ran the Houston kitchen himself for 16 years, penning the original Brennan's of Houston cookbook along the way. "Ella and the Brennan family have given us this culture of working to make all the restaurants a better place every single day. Whenever people are in a position where they can grow, to me, it's inspiring. It gives you the drive you need to push ahead."

To that end, Holley says he was "Creolized" at Brennan's. "And, to this day, I use that in my cooking," adds the Ohio-born chef, who enjoyed high-profile 10-year run at Pesce, and whose own seafood restaurant is set to open this month in the revamped Midtown space that once held Sushi Raku. "You weren't just a cook for the Brennan family. You were part of their business, and it was more of an adventure with new challenges. And there was always someone there to assist you."

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Despite the restaurant's nearly half-centurty of absorption into Houston food ways, the menu still finds its most solid footing in the Creole and Cajun cultures to the east. Appetizers include wild shrimp remoulade and Breaux Bridge crawfish and waffles, while entrees showcase Gulf fish Pontchartrain with crabmeat, shrimp and oysters. Desserts feature the family's signature bread pudding souffle and, of course, bananas Foster flamed tableside.

For his part, Holley started his Gulf Coast education at Brennan's of Houston, then spent three years learning from the late Jamie Shannon at Commander's, before Brennan's exec Walker called him back. It was during this return, which lasted until regional industry giants Damian Mandola and Johnny Carrabba convinced him to open Pesce, that Holley played a significant role in recruiting two "kids" just finishing the Art Institute. Evans and Shepherd would be virtual twins from that moment until they went off to create their own exceedingly successful restaurants.

It's a wonder, though, that Brennan's ever made it out of Louisiana, to inspire and teach so many of Houston's great chefs. The original large extended family behind both Commander's and the equally legendary, now-shuttered Brennan's in the French Quarter, famously split over such contentious as issues as whether they should expand to other New South cities. The side of the family based at Commander's, that grand turquoise mother ship in the Garden District, ended up opening Brennan's spinoffs in Atlanta, Dallas and Houston -- against the wishes of the side based in the Quarter. Atlanta and Dallas didn't last. Houston, opened in 1967, most assuredly did.

Over the decades, Houston proprietor Alex Brennan-Martin, Miz Ella's son, has offered several explanations for the eatery's success, starting with geographic and cultural proximity to New Orleans. Yet something else came to work well at Brennan's in Houston -- the conviction that it needed to be not a New Orleans restaurant in Houston, but rather, quite simply, a Houston restaurant. By the time the Brennan's and their staff started touting the pleasures of "Texas Creole" cooking, the menu already featured Southwestern touches like black beans and down-home Tex-Mex migas, right along with urbane eggs Benedict at their iconic Sunday jazz brunch.

Making a unique restaurant that remains vital throughout decades required the nurturing of unique talent, as Brennan-Martin can attest. "We believe in mentoring," he explains, "and we try to spend time with people who are proving themselves with action. Resenting people who take the next step in their careers has never been part of our culture."

"When someone goes, it just spurs us to take the next step," he adds. "The energy we get from people who truly want to be here helps keep us fresh. It helps us get better. It's as much a part of our business as knowing how to make turtle soup."

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Some might have feared this process would end in September 2008, when Hurricane Ike barreled through Houston and spun off a series of fires in the middle of torrential rains. One two-alarm blaze broke out at Brennan's, engulfing the 1930 building created by architect John F. Staub to evoke the New Orleans French Quarter. (The Brennans had always loved that Staub had etched a little piece of their hometown decades before they came looking to open a restaurant here.) By the morning after Ike, the place was a brick shell filled with smoldering ashes, only the awning with the Brennan's of Houston logo remaining.

Over the next 16 months, Brennan-Martin and Co. took the disaster as an opportunity to rethink. The old place, they realized, had gotten a bit dark and worn; it made great sense to renew and brighten. In some cases, new windows were added; in others, old original ones were discovered buried over ill-placed plaster. The finished product -- breezier, with hints of golden-hued mod style, but still classically elegant in its almost trademarked way -- opened Feb. 16, 2010, ready to continue raising many of the city's great culinary stars.

The two greatest example of this tradition may yet be Evans and Shepherd. The two were both named sous chefs on the same day, and indeed Evans was named chef de cuisine and Shepherd sommelier -- he preferred "wine guy" -- on the same day a few years after that. (Shepherd, who developed his interest in vino after creating wine dinners as a chef, ended up doubling the value of Brennan's wine inventory to $500,000 during his tenure.) Again together, Evans and Shepherd became fascinated with buying from local farmers and became leaders of the chef-driven farm-to-table movement.

"I thought I'd stay a year or two." laughs Evans, "and 12 years later I left." It actually took Hurricane Ike to break him loose, when rather than setting up shop in a makeshift office for 16 months, he went off to create Haven. "With a lot of [restaurants], you're not a person but a commodity or position. They don't want you to grow because then they'll have to train somebody else. The Brennan family always made sure you had a chance to grow, even when it might take you away from them."

That happened with Shepherd in 2006, when he joined Charles Clark and Grant Cooper of Ibiza and Brasserie 19 fame in opening Catalan. He eventually segued from there to Underbelly, where he daily declares that multiethnic Houston is America's new "Creole city." His efforts inspired the James Beard Foundation to name him Best Chef Southwest this year, the first time a Houston chef has won in 22 years.

"There's just a certain energy here," asserts today's Brennan's of Houston Executive Chef Danny Trace, who, like others before him, previously worked at Commander's -- and who seems destined to make his mark on Houston's culinary scene, in his vaunted current job, and perhaps, one day, beyond. "It's all about the memories."

"We have the attitude going in the door that we are going to make memories today."