There’s barely a Brennan in the Big Easy who isn’t involved in the restaurant industry today. That’s because the name has been synonymous with New Orleans hospitality since 1943, when Owen Edward Brennan set up his saloon at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. A few years later he expanded into dining, leasing a space across the street to open Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carré, colloquially known as “Brennan’s.” Owen Edward recruited his father, Owen Patrick, an Irish immigrant and foundry laborer, into the business, and the father-and-son team made the French restaurant an instant success. “An Irish immigrant family who ran a bar opened a French restaurant and turned it into a multi-generational dynasty - that is what America is all about,” says Dickie Brennan, nephew of Owen Edward, grandson of Owen Patrick, and chef-owner of his own NOLA empire: Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Bourbon House, Tableau and Palace Café.
Owen Edward had a short lease on the original Brennan’s space, so he moved the restaurant to Royal Street in 1956. He never saw it open, however; just a few months before, at 45 years old, Owen Edward Brennan suffered a heart attack and died. Owen Edward’s sister, Ella, who was the kitchen supervisor, ran the spot; when Owen Patrick died a few years later, his shares in the restaurant were divided among Ella, her four remaining siblings, and Owen Edward’s wife and three sons.
This is where the family history gets…complicated, to say the least. A very brief summary: Over the years, a rift developed over expansion of the restaurant, which included the purchase of Commander’s Palace in 1969, and branches in Houston, Dallas, and Florida. The schism created two factions of Brennans: the “Royal Street” Brennans - brothers Jimmy, Pip, and Ted (Owen Edward’s sons); and the “Commander’s” Brennans, which included Ella, and her other siblings, Adelaide, John, Dottie and Dick (Richard, Sr., Dickie’s father).
Dickie remembers the early days of the “Commander’s” Brennans. “I lived two blocks from Commander’s Palace when we took it over,” he recalls. “I was 9 years old.” It was around that time that Dickie’s father created Commander’s famous jazz brunch. “My father used to work breakfast at Brennan’s, which was very popular. He came up with the idea to have a live jazz trio in the dining room at Commander’s.” Young Dickie and his sister, Lauren, would don white shirts and black bow-ties, and take to the streets with pamphlets to promote it. The landmark restaurant went on to become Dickie’s inspiration, and the platform for the rest of his career. “We were always recruited to work in the business,” Dickie says. But while his aunts, uncles and cousins continued to work front-of-the house at the various Brennan-spinoffs around town (including Mr. B’s Bistro; Red Fish Grill and Café Adelaide), he became the only Brennan to train as a chef. “My dad was always glad that I wanted to cook,” he recalls. “He always said that it was the one thing he didn’t know how to do in a restaurant, and if his chef ever walked out, he’d be stuck.”
While Richard, Sr. served as a great mentor to Dickie, others looked after him in the kitchen, most notably NOLA legend Paul Prudhomme. “He was a great mentor,” Dickie remembers. “Previously, we always had European chefs, and then Paul came around, and he was a real country guy.” Prudhomme was responsible for localizing Commander’s, and teaching Dickie all about the bounty around him. “Paul knew all the farmers. He even built a levee around the pond for frog’s legs. I love sourcing products because of what Paul taught me.” After Prudhomme’s tutelage, Dickie went on to work in Rome, Paris, Mexico City and with Larry Forgione at An American Place Restaurant in New York City, before returning to New Orleans to become executive chef at his father’s restaurant, Palace Café, in 1991.
Though Dickie might be the only trained chef of his own generation, he has several nieces and nephews who are currently enrolled in culinary school, no doubt readying to enter the family business. Dickie says he hopes his own children follow his path as well. “As a dad I’d love nothing better than to see my children in the business. I hope that I can do my thing to enable them to make a decision to be happy and have the skill to do what they want to do. My biggest fear is the 4th generation person who comes in and takes it for granted. They were born into a privileged life, but the second they take it for granted, the business will crumble,” he warns. “I don’t believe in that - if you want to get lucky, then work hard. I have a lot of confidence in the next generation - my kids, my cousins’ kids - we are a very diverse second generation, as were the seniors in their generation. This next generation is that diverse, too.
The family tree still continues to tangle, however. The flagship Brennan’s recently made headlines with its change of management, with two sets of Brennans battling for control. But despite the long history of family squabbles, Dickie says he’s looking to the next generation to make peace. “There is a ripple affect to everything,” he reflects. “The whole history of this family has taught me that you can’t communicate enough. Any kind of problems and disagreements always stem from a lack of communication. You should be able to work though anything with communication, and I suppose that is my one disappointment is that we could have worked though some things if we talked. So I encourage the next generation to talk and build a bridge. And I think they want to do that.”