In her memoir of the culinary arts in New Orleans, Ella Brennan proclaimed, “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.” At Commander’s Palace, her vibrant stage for creole cuisine, such bands not only could but did often march through‚ with Miss Ella second-lining with them.
Dining with her was like watching a choreographer control a stage with glances, hand signals and glares, as she noticed a half-empty water glass four tables away or a pecan-crusted pompano improperly plated. With her passion and compassion, she cared deeply about every detail of her diners’ experience, and she was a pioneer among restaurateurs who stressed local ingredients and cuisines. During her 72 years (yes!) in the business, before her death on May 31 at age 92 in her elegant home adjoining her restaurant, she trained many great chefs, including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, but just as important to her were the cadres of waiters and captains she commanded as her front line in turning meals into celebrations.
Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University and a former managing editor of TIME
This appears in the June 18, 2018 issue of TIME.