Interview with Ralph Brennan
Originally published by Paper Palate on December 18, 2008.
It was a cool, crisp autumn day as I entered one of those ubiquitous chain bookstores in Mobile, AL. I was not there for a cup of java or to knock out a little early Christmas shopping. No, I was there to meet royalty. Well, culinary royalty anyway. Ralph Brennan is yet another of the New Orleans Brennan’s who own some of the countries most notable eateries. Ralph is the Brennan behind BACCO and Red Fish Grill in the French Quarter, Ralph’s on the Park in mid-city New Orleans, as well as Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen at the Disneyland® Resort in Southern California.
When the meeting was first set up, I was worried that I might only get a few minutes with the famed restaurateur, but when I realized that his book signing was scheduled at the same time as the 112th renewal of the Deep South’s oldest football rivalry, Auburn and Georgia, my outlook improved. As it turned out, the game was a barn burner so most respectable folks stayed glued to their sets. Football is, after all, the official religion of Alabama. As for me, I took advantage of the extra time to discuss some of the issues that plague our industry (food services) with a former president of the National Restaurant Association. Very interesting and eye-opening matters I assure you but unfortunately for you, dear reader, off the record.
For me, it was a conversation I will long remember. One of the selling points of being a chef for the Brennan’s is that they are foodies. They get it; they understand the passion by which chefs go about their work, in fact they share it. Recently when speaking with Chef Tory McPhail of the Commander’s Palace, he related how once a week he sits down with his employers (Ralph’s cousins) for several hours and they just chat about food. They discuss trends and pricing, movements and fads. And oh, how I envied him. But no more, for at least one afternoon, I was part of the Brennan Family.
Family is an important concept to Ralph Brennan and, to him, it transcends DNA. If you work for Ralph, you are a member of the family. If you dine at one of his restaurants, you are also a member of the family. This attitude is clearly behind why he repeatedly wins awards as the best employer in the Crescent City. In 2003, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation named him “Employer of Choice” and in 2003 and 2004, he took honors from New Orleans City Business for “Best Places To Work.”
Being from New Orleans, it should come as no surprise that Brennan has a strong tie to the bounty of the seas; most of us along the Third Coast pride ourselves in the quality of our seafood. Ralph Brennan’s book is both a tribute and a crash course on Gulf Coast seafood and, therefore, the majority of the interview focuses on such.
Of your restaurants, do you have one that is your favorite?
No. Each one is different. I’ve never duplicated a restaurant yet. They’re each different; they’re each fun. They take turns being a challenge to me. That’s kind of fun, too.
You mentioned that you had restaurants all over the country; do you have anything new in the works right now?
No. Katrina and the economy. Katrina set us back and we were just starting to think about where we were going to go, look around at maybe some other opportunities and then (hurricanes) Gustav and Ike came and then now these national economic problems. Right now I’m kind of nosing around at some things but nothing serious.
Why a book about seafood?
Well we wanted to do a book. Then we started to think about it and we looked around and tried to see what other books had been done. And I didn’t want to do a restaurant cookbook. I wanted to do something broader than that because sometimes I find restaurant cookbooks are kind of limiting. With four different restaurants, I just didn’t want to pick one.
We decided seafood could be a good area. Some people had done it but not to the extent that we did it. Then what we did was we had each of the chefs, there’s four chefs plus the executive chef, put together recipes and Gene Bourg, who’s the former food critic from the Times-Picayune, helped me select the recipes so they’re balanced. About 25% of the recipes are traditional recipes like the Trout Mangier and then we have more contemporary recipes that we do today. So it’s a blend of the old and the new and all kinds of seafood. One of our dishes at BACCO is a lobster ravioli and it’s our top selling dish and it’s not in the book because it’s not Gulf seafood.
So the Gulf seafood is important to you?
Yeah. We only use domestic seafood. Most of it is Gulf seafood. Our chefs have the ability to play a little bit with specials but we’re not going to import crawfish or shrimp. There are people who will sell you what they say is the same species as red fish but they come from Thailand or wherever, Vietnam. We won’t do it. We’ll pay more for it to get Gulf seafood.
How does the New Orleans style of cooking seafood differ from other regions?
That’s a good question. I guess it’s probably the way we season our food. The traditional Creole seasonings that we use and each area seems to have different seasonings so I would say that’s probably it, how you flavor the food.
Ralph Brennan’s New Orleans Style Seafood is published by Vissi D’Arte Books (New Orleans, LA) and is a 170-recipe masterpiece created by the perfect storm of Southern talent, restaurateur Ralph Brennan and his five talented chefs, veteran editor Gene Bourg, award-winning photographer Kerri McCaffety, and experienced recipe tester Paulette Rittenberg. It is also the perfect gift for the seafood lover in your family.