November 27, 2004
If Ralph Brennan has a few more gray hairs than he did this time last year, you can blame it on Ralph's. In December 2003, Brennan (A&S '73, B '75) unveiled his latest restaurant venture, Ralph's on the Park, but the opening turned out to be a bigger challenge than he had anticipated.
What was expected to be a six-month renovation of a historic 19th-century building on the edges of New Orleans' City Park stretched to nearly a year. It was worth the wait. Ralph's opened to rave reviews from customers and critics alike, earning a prestigious four-bean rating from the Times-Picayune for its stylish coupling of French cuisine and fresh Louisiana ingredients. In an industry with a failure rate as high as 90 percent, Brennan has proven he knows the ingredients for success.
You could say that Brennan has the restaurant business in his blood. He got his start in the business as a teenager, peeling shrimp in the kitchen of Brennan's, the legendary French Quarter restaurant founded in 1946 by his uncle, Owen Brennan. By the time Ralph Brennan graduated from Tulane, however, a long simmering rift in the Brennan family was coming to a head. Unhappy with the efforts of Ella Brennan, sister of the late Owen Brennan, to expand the family's restaurant holdings, brothers Pip, Jimmy and Ted Brennan, Owen's sons and majority shareholders of Brennan's, broke rank with their aunts and uncles and assumed sole control of Brennan's.
The rest of the family, including Ella and Ralph's father, John, were given ownership of the other restaurants, including Commander's Palace, which the family had purchased in 1969. The split threw the financial future of Ralph's father, aunts and uncles into uncertainty.
"Commander's didn't have the reputation it has today," Brennan explains. "Brennan's was the breadwinner, and they had lost that stream of income, so it put a lot of pressure on them. It was a difficult time." Brennan had already planned to get an MBA. With the uncertainty surrounding his family's future in the restaurant business, he accepted a job with Price Waterhouse following his graduation.
For the next six years, he worked as a CPA, an experience he says ultimately contributed to his success as a restaurateur. "Accounting teaches you an analytical way of thinking," Brennan says. "It's not necessarily the numbers part but the disciplined thinking and the approaches to problem- solving that have been helpful to me."
Commander's, meanwhile, under Ella's direction, prospered, becoming a nationally acclaimed institution. Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse are among the chefs to get their start in the Commander's kitchen. It was over Christmas dinner in 1981 that Ella Brennan first asked Ralph if he'd be interested in leaving Price Waterhouse to join the restaurant business. Brennan leapt at the opportunity.
"I always had the feeling it was in my blood," he says, "so when I had the opportunity to get back into the business, I wanted to try it." In the summer of 1982, Ralph and his sister, Cindy Brennan (UC '78), began to put their stamp on Mr. B's Bistro, a French Quarter restaurant that their aunts, uncle and father had opened a few years earlier. Mr. B's became a popular and influential restaurant, blazing a culinary trail with smartly updated Creole classics.
Their partner in that effort was executive chef Gerard Maras, who is now at Ralph's on the Park. Cindy remains at the helm of Mr. B's. Inspired by the success of Mr. B's and restless to take on new challenges, Brennan began to branch out on his own. Bacco, a Tuscan-style Italian restaurant in the French Quarter, came first in 1991, followed in 1997 by Red Fish Grill, a Bourbon Street seafood restaurant. In 2001, Brennan started up the Jazz Kitchen at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
"I don't tell a chef what to cook, but we talk about the concepts and the types of dishes we'd like to see," says Brennan of his role in developing a restaurant. Success depends on more than the menu, says Brennan. "You have to have the right people in place. This business isn't that complicated, but it does require an incredible amount of detail. It's the execution of those minute details--every day and every meal, period--that makes it difficult."
Difficult but gratifying. Now that Ralph's on the Park is up and running, Brennan's feeling the itch to look around for a new challenge. "There will be something," he says. "I don't know what yet, but I see a lot of opportunity."
Favorite comfort food?
A cheeseburger and chocolate milk shake.
Greatest food fear?
That I would have to eat escargot again.
Certainly, the senior members of my family. They started with very little and established themselves as one of the top restaurant families in New Orleans and the country. My generation has been left a great legacy that we must build upon. The restaurant industry is an industry of opportunity. Through my National Restaurant Association involvement [Brennan served as president of the association], I have met several industry leaders who have also become informal mentors to me and, in a sense, idols, but they are not celebrities or household names.
Who would you like to see walk through the door of one of your restaurants?
Any U.S. president.
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