If the city of New Orleans could create a pair of culinary ambassadors, they’d likely look something like Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan, a set of chic cousins born into a family where the restaurant business runs deep through their veins. Co-proprietors of the legendary Commander's Palace, the new-creole Cafe Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar, and the cocktail-driven, one-year-old SoBou, the two seem to be everywhere.
Riding high on recent accolades (James Beard Best Chef, Wine Spectator Grand Award, Zagat New Orleans Most Popular, to name a few), and following a busy week entertaining Tales of the Cocktail attendees (including ourselves), the duo sat down and talked business, boudin and southern hospitality.
Zagat: You are both industry veterans, clearly. What advice would you give to aspiring restaurateurs?
Ti: We were taught to make our careers part of our lifestyle and not fight it. You have to find a way to make it an integral part of your life.
Lally: Everybody has to work; it’s a gift to yourself to find a career that stimulates you and that you feel passionate about.
Ti: Find a mentor.
Lally: And surround yourself with fun, intelligent people.
Zagat: The New Orleans restaurant scene is burgeoning and bustling. How do you think it holds its own against the big cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco et al?
Ti: The restaurant scene is simply reflecting the business scene in in this city. New Orleans was ranked the #1 most improved metropolitan area in The Wall Street Journal’s list of “Best Cities for Business” two years ago. The Brookings Institute ranked New Orleans a Top 20 Strongest Performing Economy. We are doing extraordinarily well. The growth in this city has felt like a rocket ship in the last few years. And with our improvements in education and entrepreneurship, we have the brain gain instead of a brain drain.
Lally: The restaurant scene in this city has never been stronger. There are more restaurants and more good restaurants.
Zagat: Commander's Palace won their first Wine Spectator Grand Award this year and Chef Tory McPhail won his first James Beard award. How do you keep such an institution fresh year after year?
Ti: Yes, we’ve won many Wine Spectator awards but we finally took home the Grand Award this year. We are constantly evolving our restaurants. Every day we ask ourselves “What can we do better today?”
Lally: We stay aware of what is happening in our industry. We pay attention to other restaurants.
Ti: I love restaurants. I like working in them. I like eating in them. I like reading about them and I like talking about them. Also, we are always setting new goals. We tried to win the Grand Award for 15 years – that keeps us motivated.
Lally: We also share information with our staff and keep everyone informed. That keeps us all motivated.
Ti: We are all learning all the time.
Zagat: Part of what makes New Orleans such a fantastic city to dine and drink in is the service. What can other cities learn about southern hospitality?
Lally: The old adage, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Ti: We aim to be professional, not intimidating. We are in the hospitality industry to create dining memories. We talk to our staff twice a day about how we feel it’s an honor to serve people. It pervades the culture.
Zagat: I was fortunate to dine at all three of your restaurants which gave me a real sense of how differently Creole food can be served. How do you feel the cuisine has evolved?
Ti: Truth be told, Creole and Cajun cuisines used to never be served in the same restaurant, but the two crashed in the 80’s with Paul Prudhomme in the Commander’s kitchen. Now that’s the food that’s served all over New Orleans.
Lally: Restaurants are serving more food that used to only be served at home or on the street. Our restaurant SoBou serves Boudin, cracklin’ and beignets. You used to not find that in restaurants.
Ti: Fishermen would pick up boudin at the gas station on their way to work. And SoBou serves pinchos, which are traditional Puerto Rican street food, (thanks to our chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez who’s from there).
Zagat: Your newest spot SoBou just turned one and was one of the go-to spots during Tales. How’d the idea for a cocktail-driven restaurant came about?
Ti: It’s certainly not a stretch for us to have a beverage-focused restaurant. Cocktails have always been such an important part of what we do.
Lally: We’re the Cocktail Chicks (referring to their cocktail book published in 2007 called In the Land of Cocktails).
Ti: Commander’s Palace is all about the whole experience of dining out: the service, the food and the cocktails.
Lally: Cocktails have never been a redheaded stepchild for us.
Ti: And SoBou is a true place to just hang out. It’s a “third place.” Tom Fitzmorris, New Orleans food writer, called it a “new type of restaurant.”
Lally: You can get up and move around. You can serve yourself wine from the wine taps. You can just show up and hang out.
Zagat What's next for Ti Martin and Lally Brennan?
Ti: To borrow a line from local Bryan Batt: You’re gonna have to at least buy us dinner to find out that!