As the unofficial headquarters of good times, New Orleans takes a certain pride in making people feel right at home. For decades now, Commander’s Palace, the stately aqua-and-white palace in the Garden District, has done just that with its Louisiana crawfish gnocchi and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin. And since July 2012, the minds behind the iconic restaurant have wowed locals and visitors with a winning mix of cuisine and cocktails at the French Quarter’s SoBou (south of Bourbon Street) restaurant. Ti Martin, who oversees the family’s epicurean empire with her cousin Lally Brennan — They’re relatives with the folks behind the now-shuttered Brennan’s creole restaurant — recently took the time to talk with us about everything from running a successful restaurant to enjoying NOLA’s evolving cocktail culture, and being Emeril Lagasse’s drinking buddy.
Your mother Ella’s influence can be found everywhere in the family’s impressive list of restaurants. What do you see as her main legacy?
Ti Martin: My mother’s main legacy is hard to answer because she has been inspirational on many levels. She is the total restaurateur and I use that word with great respect. She is an entrepreneur, a mentor, someone who pushed for U.S. restaurants to be as good as or better than their European counterparts, and lived to see that happen. She also understood and preached that we are in the hospitality business. We are meant to make people have fun, feel welcomed and never intimidated. She truly believes that we can be a better restaurant every day and pushes us to evolve constantly. Perhaps her greatest talent is that she makes you feel you can be more than you ever thought was possible. She’s a dreamer, but one willing to do the hard work. But as good of a restaurateur as she is, she’s an even better mother.
After growing up around great food and drinks, you and Lally literally wrote the book on cocktails with In The Land of Cocktails: Recipes and Adventures from the Cocktail Chicks. Now, you’ve expanded that culture into the wildly popular SoBou. How do you see cocktail culture changing as New Orleans’ demographic has changed?
Cocktail culture has changed by virtue of the fact that more people “get it.” People have become more educated in the last 15 to 20 years about food due to magazines, TV, travel, etc., and now they have tuned into cocktails. For instance, if you know what a good Sidecar tastes like because you have made one at home, you will not be OK with an inferior one when you go out. And that was the point of our book — to get the public interested in the fascinating world of cocktails; between the history, stories and information about the products and how they are made. We wanted to get them interested enough to try different things and not just have a Jack and Coke and think you are having a cocktail, but interested enough to try a Tequila Mockingbird II and to try to make it at home.
For us, a great meal begins with a well-made cocktail, then perhaps you move into wine and, after dinner, it’s every man for himself. I will be sipping a Sazerac at the end of a great meal. I probably began with a Blood and Sand and I am always enchanted with the mini fire you set on top of that drink with the spritz of orange oils. So, as the public gets interested, the cocktails keep getting better, and it is a virtuous cycle of the happiest kind.
Your kitchens are famous for the quality of chefs that have passed through and the ones working in them now. What are some of your memories of the earliest days of Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme?
Paul was, and is, such a dear, and I have truly never seen anyone who sincerely loves food more. He talks about it like it’s a person sitting in the room. I actually worked in the kitchen when Emeril was our chef [from 1982 to 1989]. In typical kitchen style, you get tested from the get-go to see if you can make it. The very first thing [the chefs] did was give me a tray of a hundred live soft-shell crabs and instruct me to pull their eyes out. Let’s just say I passed the test. There was Emeril smiling at me and running all over the kitchen constantly saying [to other cooks], “Did you taste it? Taste it again.” Then after work, well, let’s just say we were all “drinking buddies.” He was, and still is, a fun guy.
Your James Beard Award-winning Commander’s Palace chef Tory McPhail continues to amaze, as do SoBou’s Juan Carlos Gonzalez and Carl Schaubhut at your other restaurant Café Adelaide. How does it feel to be at the top of your game after a lifetime in the competitive New Orleans field?
Since I inherited something from my mother that we call “healthy paranoia,” I never feel like we are at the top of our game. We truly feel that we are as good as the last meal we served. Period. But we do feel it is an honor to serve people and we take great joy in that. The other day, a guest stopped me and wanted to share a slew of compliments about her meal. But my favorite part was that she said someone dropped an empty dish on the ground and a server swooped by, picked it up and gracefully put it behind her back as she moved out of the room. I love that. We work on body language and professional grace and that little incident that most people would never notice is what makes me very proud of the team. I am button-popping proud of our teams right now almost across the board. We are in a good place, from our outstanding lady bar chefs to our service manager Don Strunk to Tory who truly leads our company on so many levels. We are hitting on all cylinders most of the time. But, tomorrow we should … there’s that paranoia!
Photos Courtesy of Commander’s Palace