Tom Fitzmorris on Ted Brennan

From my perspective, this is exactly right. Thank you Tom Fitzmorris for giving Ted and the other Brennan boys their due.

Ted Brennan, 1948-2016.

There’s a tragic aspect to the end of every life. One hopes that the brighter qualities so outshine the darkness the the person’s life is celebrated gladly. Ted Brennan, who died on Wednesday, August 3, 2016 at the age of sixty-eight, had that balancing act pretty well accomplished.

Ted and his two brothers owned Brennan’s on Royal Street, one of the most successful, original, and loved establishments in the world history of the restaurant business. But three years before his passing he had to watch his restaurant pulled out from under him. It was a professional and personal disaster, one from which there didn’t seem to be any escape.
But Brennan’s was so much a part of Ted’s life that, even as his health gave out (Parkinson’s), he had plans in the works to open a new French Quarter restaurant with his son Teddy. It was such a reach that, frankly, I never thought I would see Ted Brennan’s On Decatur actually open. It hasn’t, yet, but all the pieces seem to be coming together for a fall opening. The plan includes Chef Lazone Randolph, the brilliant man who orchestrated the kitchen at Brennan’s for decades. I am ready to be very pleasantly surprised.
Ted was in his twenties, the youngest of Owen Brennan’s boys, when the three of them took full control of Brennan’s from their aunts and uncles in 1973. With their mother they already owned the place, having inherited it after father Owen died young in 1955. It was Owen and his siblings that had built Brennan’s into the fantastically popular and profitable restaurant it had become. (These aunts and uncles moved to Commander’s Palace, where they had to start all over again, and did-brilliantly.)
By 1973, Ted and his two brothers were already heavily involved in Brennan’s operation, and they were ready to run the establishment their way, without having to check in with Aunts Ella and Adelaide or Uncles Dick and John in every decision. The two sides of the family would never reconcile their differences.
That was okay with Ted, Pip and Jimmy. Pip eased into the nuts and bolts of general management. Jimmy became the man with the key to the wine cellar, which would become one of the best in America. Ted, with his good looks and sense of humor and hospitality, became the man standing at the entrance, making sure the VIPs and regulars were well cared for. I heard it said more than a few times that Ted most resembled his father Owen, who was one of the most convivial and best-liked hosts in New Orleans. Indeed, in almost all my meals and interviews at Brennan’s, Ted was the man I spoke with. Only once did I have dinner with the three of them at one table.
Two anecdotes about Ted and his personality: He showed up for a radio visit with me one afternoon. He walked into the studio with his finger on his lips. He pulled his hand away and shook it negatively. He pointed to his throat, then shrugged his shoulders. “What’s up?” I asked, puzzled. He grabbed a piece of paper and wrote on it, “I can’t talk. Laryngitis!” He can’t talk in an interview on the radio? Then he started laughing at me for falling for that.
Second anecdote: I was having dinner at Brennan’s one night, enjoying a half-dozen oysters casino. The dish is almost too simple: oysters baked on the shells with cocktail sauce and a slice of crisp bacon. Ted came up behind me and said, “Just like a stupid Irishman!” he said. “Eating oysters with hot ketchup and bacon. Hah!”
I looked up. “So why do you have it on your menu if it’s so awful?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I like them too!” He didn’t have to tell me that he also was strongly Irish.
During their heyday from 1973 until just into the 2000s, the Brennan brothers had a simple business model. They knew it was a gold-laying goose, and they took very good care of that bird. They rarely made major changes in the menu. They were very generous with their friends and regulars. One staffer was responsible for contacting any friend of the Brennans who was having a birthday, and inviting the celebrant in for dinner.
For about ten years in the 1990s, they sent me a can of beluga caviar for Christmas every year. It would be clearly unethical for me to accept such a gift, but they wouldn’t take it when I tried to give it back. This led to my beginning a charitable dinner I would chef on Twelfth Night every year. The first of the ten courses was always beluga caviar atop savory waffles, courtesy of Brennan’s.
When we began the Eat Club dinner series in the 1990s, our first Christmas Eat Club dinner was at Brennan’s. To say that the wines and food they served us were far more valuable than what the Eat Clubbers had to pay is a gross understatement.
And then, in 2011, I was told that Brennan’s couldn’t do the Eat Club Reveillon dinner that year. Same thing next year, and forever after that. I would not have guessed that this was because Brennan’s was having financial problems. But that was the deal, all right.
And then Jimmy Brennan died. This clicked in one of several unusual agreements among the brothers as to what would happen if one of them died, retired, or otherwise left the scene. I have heard a few versions of how this worked, but most of them say that ownership in Brennan’s could not devolve to anyone other than one of the three brothers. The next development: Ted and Pip were taking legal action against one other. And then, they were all cast out, as new owners of Brennan’s cleared the deck, paying by far the highest price in the history of the New Orleans restaurant business.
And Ted was on the street. But he swore that he’d be back, with Teddy and Lazone, to re-establish his idea of what Brennan’s is supposed to me.
It gives me a sour feeling to review those desperate days for the Brennan brothers. Only Pip Brennan remains of the trio. Pip’s sons are in the restaurant business, but not here in town. I dearly hope that Teddy gets his father’s restaurant open this fall. I would give me something to smile about when I think of what happened to my friend Ted Brennan. Quel dommage!

About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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