The Man Behind the Name: Chatting with Ralph Brennan

Brennan... it's a name synonymous with the restaurant industry in New Orleans, La. And that's quite a feat in a city that is known worldwide for its food. SHM Traveler had the chance to talk with Ralph Brennan, president, Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group (includes Red Fish Grill, Ralph's on the Park, cafè NOMA, Heritage Grill, cafè b, Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen® and Ralph Brennan Catering Events) to discuss the name, the restaurants, the cookbook and the Crescent City.

SHM Traveler: You actually worked as a CPA after graduation - what drew you back to restaurants and the hospitality industry? Did you know you would eventually return?

Brennan: Coming from a family that has been in hospitality generations, restaurants were always in my blood and I knew I would one day return to the industry. Although after five-plus years in accounting, I was beginning to think that’s where I would end up! I am grateful my Aunt Ella called and gave me the opportunity to come back to work with my family in the place where I belonged.

SHM Traveler: Who (and perhaps what) has been your biggest influence?

Brennan: There were three people who were the biggest influences to my growth in the restaurant industry. My parents, Claire and John Brennan, and my aunt, Ella Brennan. My parents taught me to stay true to your core values and still to this day my personal and business directives maintain that philosophy. My Aunt Ella was my catalyst; she got me excited about restaurants and provided a strong foundation on how to operate them successfully.

SHM Traveler: Discuss the evolution and growth of New Orleans' food scene (something your family has definitely had a strong hand in.) How would you describe it?

Brennan: The New Orleans restaurant industry in the 60s and 70s remained relatively constant and traditional. The city was defined by its small neighborhood eateries and formal, large dining restaurants such as Brennan’s, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s. A renaissance began in the early 1980s with the opening of less formal establishments, serving food that is not necessarily the customary New Orleans cuisine. The evolution of the celebrity chef became apparent with Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme and Susan Spicer. At this point, restaurants began to experiment with new cooking techniques, local ingredients and fresh Gulf seafood. It was an exciting turning point that continues even stronger today.

SHM Traveler: As a third-generation restaurateur, what challenges have you faced and how have you conquered them? What have you learned from them?

Brennan: The last seven years have been a never-ending series of challenges starting with Hurricane Katrina, the recession, and the BP oil spill. Katrina was the most difficult because of the impact on our staff and their families. Not to sound clichéd, but what affects them directly also affects us. Our employees, their families, and mine thrive and grow as one community. It made us stop and think we are a better community from it, but there is always a chance for continual growth. There are high expectations from customers that come with a last name like Brennan. So much has been built on the restaurateur family reputation so when you are carrying that torch, you need to hold up your end of the bargain. My father, aunts and uncles were visionaries in New Orleans, and established the traditions that we live by today. I am proud to represent the Brennan name, by way of using Ralph Brennan; and the latest honor for me was to be inducted as the first Louisianan to sit on the Board of Trustees of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA.)

SHM Traveler: Talk a little about the restaurants. In your opinion, how does each one stand out? Is there a certain dish (or dishes) that should be tried at each?

Brennan: Red Fish Grill is our casual, colorful Bourbon Street seafood restaurant where bare wooden tables are set amid a funky décor. This lends to the unfussy style cuisine from Redfish to  BBQ Oysters to Gumbo, all focusing on the bounty of the Gulf. When it first opened, it was the first casual New Orleans seafood restaurant that didn’t focus on fried seafood. I love grilled fish, so the primary food feature is the wood-burning grill that features a different grilled fish each day. But of course, Redfish is the most popular!
Ralph’s on the Park was an ambitious move for us, in terms of creating a fine dining restaurant in Mid-City, that may be considered out of my comfort zone. Looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s a refined venue, set on an outer street of a neighborhood that faces historic City Park in a former building dating from the 1860s. With a menu of locally influenced global cuisine, here you’ll find delicacies from Turtle Soup to an Exotic Mushroom Tart to Bourbon Soaked Banana Fritters.
café b, is our first venture into Jefferson Parish and to establish a real down home neighborhood feel like the ones I knew growing up, and I believe we accomplished it. A retro-brasserie offering refined American comfort food at a reasonable price.
Heritage Grill, is a unique lunch-only power spot location in Metairie that is available for private dinner parties and it is the backbone of our new catering division. We are headed full speed into the development of our high-end, full service catering company, Ralph Brennan Catering & Events.
Café NOMA is visually appealing as it located in the New Orleans Museum of Art. Its contemporary style atmosphere is striking, and the small plates with artisanal ingredients marries the approach of the museum. My wife, Susan, has always been a supporter of the arts and serves on the NOMA Board, so this one was certainly a pet project for her.
When I got the opportunity to work with the Walt Disney Company and take our brand to California, I thought “sign me up!” But of course the opportunity with Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen® came with the challenge of learning how to serve great New Orleans food and operate a restaurant 1,500 miles from home. The restaurant features live music nightly, and our quick service extension of the restaurant, Jazz Kitchen Express, which features our signature Po-boys, Jambalaya, Bread Pudding and Beignets.

SHM Traveler: You have a cookbook, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, published in 2008 and in its second printing. Talk a little about it. Why a cookbook?

Brennan: The cuisine of New Orleans is heavily influenced by local seafood found in the Gulf of Mexico and in the marshes of south Louisiana. In all of our restaurants, you will find seafood plays a prominent role. The cookbook gave us the opportunity to give tourists and locals alike the chance to bring home our recipes and recreate them for themselves, spreading the beauty of New Orleans cuisine all over the country! And I must conclude with the fact I love to fish and if I had a wish, I would be fishing right now on one of our beautiful waterways.

SHM Traveler: New Orleans through the eyes of Ralph Brennan. You must have some favorite places and memories of New Orleans. Aside from where to eat, what would you suggest visitors do/see in New Orleans for a true experience.

Brennan: 1. View the Mississippi River. Grab a beignet and coffee from Café du Monde before heading to the Moonwalk across from Jackson Square. Stand and watch the ships pass, and realize the importance of our Port and the economic development of New Orleans and Louisiana.
2. Go fishing for redfish and speckled trout in the marsh south of New Orleans. Just a 30-minute drive will take you to Joe’s Landing in Lafitte. After short boat ride, you are in the middle of the bountiful Louisiana marsh. Bait your line and hook a redfish or speckled trout - you will enjoy the fish even more when you catch it yourself!
3. Take the streetcar from the French Quarter to the Garden District, which is the first American part of the city. Take a stroll around the neighborhood and you gain a better understanding of our unique lifestyle, both past and present.
4. Find live music! Frenchman Street to Oak Street and in between offer a wide variety local jazz, blues and so much more! Most New Orleanians you meet have that great sense of rhythm, because we are surrounded by it. It is ingrained in us because it is a vital part of our culture as is the food and history.