New Orleans…the Crescent City. A city rich in history, traditions and culture. A city known for good times, great Jazz and Mardi Gras. A city especially known for its food.
When I think of New Orleans food, several chefs come to mind, but even more so, I think of the Brennan family. Who hasn’t heard of Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace or Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans? Now in it’s third generation of restaurateurs (Mr. Brennan’s daughter, the fourth generation, has recently come on board with her father) the Brennan family is still very actively involved in the restaurant scene with at least 12 restaurants between the family members and that number is expected to increase shortly.
With that family history, we were excited to have an interview with Ralph Brennan, the President of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, while we were in New Orleans several weeks ago. I have included this interview in my Chefs series since Mr. Brennan is so much a part of the food, history and restaurants that are New Orleans.
We sat down with Mr. Brennan at one of his restaurants, Red Fish Grill on Bourbon Street, to talk about the history of the Brennan family, the evolving restaurant scene in New Orleans, the cultural aspect of the city and its people around the food and his passion for the community.
Ralph Brennan started in the family business as a young boy working in the kitchens at Brennan’s for his Aunt Ella. Although he never had a real desire to attend culinary school when he was younger (he now thinks it might have been a great experience), his Aunt Ella moved him around to different positions to get a taste of the restaurant business, working both in the kitchen and in the front of the house. She went on to send him to France for a three month cooking school and to the 21 Club in New York to gain more experience when he was older.
When he graduated from Tulane University (New Orleans), he was interested in joining the family business, however, there were no positions available for him due to a split in the Brennan family in the 1970′s. One side of the family remained at Brennan’s and his side (along with his dad, Uncle and Aunt Ella) moved to Commander’s Palace and made that their headquarters and flagship restaurant.
Ralph Brennan then went on to get in MBA and work for Price Waterhouse for six years before coming back to work for the family at Commander’s Palace in 1981. He said the diversity of the clients and the business experience he gained were invaluable in helping him to run his business now, which currently includes Ralph’s on the Park, Red Fish Grill, The Jazz Kitchen at Disneyland, partial ownership in Mr. B’s Bistro, the just opened Heritage Grill (which also has a huge catering kitchen for his catering operations) and a few other projects currently in the works.
Many years ago New Orleans was known for either the higher end, grand dining options such as Commander’s Palace or Galatoire’s or the local neighborhood restaurants. Brennan said that with the introduction of Mr. B’s in the early 80’s there was a trend towards offering a more casual fine dining option. More places started to follow that “casual fine dining” trend. Chefs like Paul Prudhomme (who opened his own restaurant after Mr. B’s) and Susan Spicer (Bayona) came to mind.
He is very excited to see the trend of casual fine dining continue. More chefs are passing through the kitchens of some of the great New Orleans restaurants and are going out on their own. In fact, Brennan told us that the a local food critic, Tom Fitzmorris, says that there are more restaurants (that he reviews) now than there were pre-Katrina.
Brennan told us that even though the restaurants in town are essentially in competition, it is “a friendly competition” and they are all great friends who work together on civic projects and donate food, their time and effort to the community to make it a better place.
One of the community projects that Ralph Brennan and his wife Susan are involved in is The Teach for America program in the New Orleans schools. The city of New Orleans had very poor performing schools prior to Katrina. 110 out of 120 schools were under performing or seriously under performing. The Teach for America program gets recent college graduates to commit to coming to the area and teaching for at least 2 years. Sometimes they sign up for a second term. He says it is very exciting and is bringing younger people into the city for the rebuild.
As part of the rebuild of New Orleans, the state legislature stepped in and essentially blew up the entire local school system. They took the 110 worst performing schools from the New Orleans parish and transferred them to the Recovery School System. They now have 75 schools open. This number is down as approximately 50,000 children have left the New Orleans area after Katrina. The city as a whole lost 140,000 inhabitants.
There has been a real turnaround in the schools. Discussions are underway to return the schools to the city. The school that Brennan and his wife are particularly involved with is an all male school of disadvantaged youth in New Orleans East by the 9th ward. He said that everyone in this program is working hard to improve the education system in New Orleans and positive results are being seen. It has been a great experiment in education.
Brennan has seen the problem of the lack of proper education in New Orleans for years. Applicants for his restaurants come in saying they are High School graduates and are not able to read or write properly. He said that many of them have found a home in the restaurant business, which he says goes back to the food culture of the city. It is the passion and soul of everyone in New Orleans.
Brennan says that just because someone is a good cook it does not always mean they are a good chef. The difference in being a good chef is that they have “the ability to get the flavors to the table consistently.” He has seen many graduates of culinary schools that could prepare a wonderful meal at your home but fail to master managing the volume and consistency needed in a restaurant. I have heard this consistency issue from several chefs that I have interviewed and I know that this is critical to the restaurant business.
I was hesitant to bring up Katrina, but it kept coming up in our conversation. As Brennan said, it is part of the history of New Orleans and who they are. He said that when Katrina hit there were no rules. There was no handbook on how to deal with the situation. “It changed us a lot as people. It made us resilient and responsive.”
Red Fish Grill was open one month after Katrina. Brennan said that they had to get back and show everyone that the city was still there and was going to come back. They wanted to project positive images of the city other than what most of us were being shown on television. They reopened Red Fish Grill quickly and served food on paper plates with paper utensils for two weeks until they had potable water. He said there was nothing better than seeing friends and having a meal together.
When I asked where I could find the best gumbo in the city, Brennan told me that question could start a family feud, but that probably the best known was the Gumbo Ya Ya at Mr. B’s. We had just been to Mr. B’s the evening before and happened to have their Gumbo Ya Ya, so I have to agree that it was one of the best Gumbos I have had.
I have noticed over the years that many other cities attempt to serve Creole or Cajun cuisine and it never seems to taste like it does in New Orleans. Many places just toss in far too much hot sauce and the depth of flavor from Creole or Cajun cooking isn’t there. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find that style of cooking outside New Orleans. Someone once told me that “it’s in the roux” and I would have to agree.
When I asked Mr. Brennan what he thought about the inability to find a good New Orleans style restaurant anywhere else, he said that it’s very hard to duplicate those bold, intense flavors of the area and the region. “You are dining in The French Quarter and the culture and atmosphere add to the taste of the food. It’s the passion for the food. It’s in our whole lifestyle here.”
I have to admit there is nothing quite like the food and the vibe of the city of New Orleans. We had such a great visit and cannot wait to return. If you have never been there, then you need to plan a visit. The people, the food, the culture…it truly is a place that finds a way into your heart and your soul.
Thank you so much to Mr. Brennan for his time and hospitality. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting him. Thank you also to Executive Chef Brian Katz and the staff at Red Fish Grill. They were very accommodating and helpful during our meeting. We had a wonderful lunch with lots of dessert!
I also recommend an evening at Ralph’s on the Park, which is by City Park and a short drive from the French Quarter. We had dinner there during our stay and it was a delightful. Their Executive Chef Chip Flanagan (this years Best Gumbo winner at the United Way “Got Gumbo? cook-off) is very talented and the restaurant is beautiful at night.
Mr. Brennan’s favorite dish from his cookbook, New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, is Grilled Redfish “on the Half-Shell” with Maître d’Hôtel Butter. Unfortunately, I was not able to purchase redfish in Atlanta, so I opted to make his Chocolate Bread Pudding with Two Chocolate Sauces that we had for dessert at Red Fish Grill (I know it will break your hearts that I chose a decadent chocolate dessert over a fish dish!).
This truly is one death by chocolate experience with a chocolate New Orleans style bread pudding that is topped with a warm chocolate and warm white chocolate sauce. The recipe is exactly like the one we had at Red Fish Grill. I think it’s worthy of a feature on The Best Thing I Ever Ate!
Disclosure – Ralph’s on the Park provided our dinner and Red Fish Grill provided our lunch.
Chocolate Bread Pudding with Two Chocolate Sauces
Yield: 12 servings
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Bread puddings come in a multitude of variations. Here is a wonderfully rich and dense one specially designed for chocolate addicts. The sweetness of it comes, not from the pudding’s custard, but from the two sauces.
*The original recipe calls for making Almond Bark and garnishing the dessert with that, however, I did not make the almond bark.
For bread pudding:
1 piece day-old New Orleans-style French bread,* about 23 inches long and weighing about 7 1/2 to 8 ounces, cut into 1/2-inch cubes with crust on
3 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
2-inch-long piece of vanilla bean
1 1/4 pounds (3 1/2 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips
8 large eggs
1 recipe chocolate sauce, for serving
1 recipe white chocolate sauce, for serving pieces
8 to 12 pieces almond bark, for garnish (I did not make this recipe)
*If New Orleans-style French bread is not available, you can get similar results using a sugarless, natural-yeast white bread with a low gluten content and a thin crust.
For chocolate sauce:
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
For white chocolate sauce:
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
10 ounces (2 1/2 cups) white chocolate chips
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
For bread pudding:
1. Scatter the bread cubes in a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Set aside.
2. In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, combine the cream, milk, and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Cut the piece of vanilla bean in half lengthwise, and scrape the tiny beans into the cream mixture. (Discard the scraped bean pod or add it to granulated or powdered sugar to make vanilla sugar.)
3. Bring the cream mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking constantly until the sugar dissolves, then whisking occasionally.
4. Add the chocolate chips and continue cooking until the chocolate is melted, about two minutes more, whisking frequently and being sure to scrape the pan bottom clean as you whisk. Remove from heat.
5. In a large mixing bowl, lightly whisk the eggs until frothy. Very slowly add the chocolate mixture to the eggs, whisking constantly so the eggs don’t curdle. Pour this custard mixture over the bread. Let the custard sit until cool enough for you to put your hands in it, about 10 minutes.
6. Once the custard is cool enough, toss the bread cubes with your hands, squeezing the cubes in the liquid to make sure all are well saturated. Cover and refrigerate overnight. About three hours before baking the pudding, remove the pan of pudding from the refrigerator, and evenly sprinkle the top with 1/4 cup sugar. Let the pudding sit at room temperature for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 300°F.
7. Once the pudding has sat 45 minutes, seal the baking dish with aluminum foil. Bake the pudding until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean and the pudding looks solidified with no puddles of liquid on the surface, about two hours. Once done, it will also start developing a few small, shallow cracks on top and there will be an irresistible smell of chocolate emanating from the oven.
8. Remove the pudding from the oven and let it sit for 15 minutes at room temperature before serving.
Serving Suggestion: Cut the pudding into eight to 12 equal-size rectangles and place on heated dessert plates. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the chocolate sauce on one half of each portion of pudding and the same amount of white chocolate sauce over the other half of the pudding. Position a piece of almond bark upright in the center of each serving for garnish.
Refrigerate any leftover pudding and sauces.
For chocolate sauce:
1. In a heavy 1-quart saucepan, combine the cream and sugar. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, whisking until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Reduce the heat to low and gradually add the chocolate chips, whisking until each addition is completely melted into the cream before adding more.
3. Add the butter and continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the butter is incorporated into the sauce. Remove from the heat.
Serving suggestion: Serve the sauce while it's still warm, or, once it's cool, store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until ready to reheat for serving. It will keep up to one week. Reheat for serving in the top of a double boiler over hot (not simmering) water, whisking constantly to keep the sauce from scorching.
For white chocolate sauce:
1. Place the white chocolate chip sin a medium-sized mixing bowl and set aside.
2. In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, combine the cream, butter and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly.
3. Remove from the heat and pour the cream mixture over the reserved chips, whisking until the mixture is smooth.
Serving suggestions: Serve the sauce while it's still warm, or once it's cool store it in the refrigerator in an airtight container until ready to reheat for serving. It will keep for at least one week.
Reheat for serving in the top of a double boiler over hot (not simmering) water, whisking constantly to keep it from scorching.
Cooks notes: I made 1/2 of the original recipe and prepared the bread pudding in 4-12 ounce ramekins. I prepared them the day before and let them sit overnight. I let them sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking them in a 350 degree oven. I baked them for 45-50 minutes. (I spoke with one of the pastry chefs at Red Fish Grill to help adjust the baking time on this adaptation.) I suggest that you serve one of the ramekins as a serving for two, although you might not want to share!
Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook, Copyright 2008