Monday, March 16, 2015

LRA Past Chair Richard Brennan Sr. died at 83 in New Orleans

Richard J. Brennan, Sr., New Orleans Restaurateur, born in the Irish Channel, passed away the evening of Saturday, March 14, surrounded by his family and loved-ones.  Brennan was the first in the family to serve as a Chair of the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) in 1961-1962, and to serve on the National Restaurant Association Board of Directors.

“Mr. Brennan was an ambassador and advocate for Louisiana’s restaurant industry,” said Stan Harris, President/CEO of the LRA. “He was a visionary, who mentored some of the most notable of chefs in New Orleans culinary history. Mr. Dick's last role for the LRA was serving as EXPO Co-Chair with his son, Dickie, in 2010.”

Brennan (better known as Dick) was the embodiment of New Orleans. His contributions to New Orleans cuisine, Mardi Gras and the overall culture of the city leave a legacy that is deeply woven into the fabric of the place he called “home.”

He was born on Third Street in the Irish Channel in November of 1931. Dick Brennan was the second youngest of six children, in what would become the first family of fine dining Creole in New Orleans. His life reads like a storybook, in which good fortune, hard work and ingenuity led to many successes.

In high school at St. Aloysius, Dick was a star basketball player.  He was all-district and all-state for his high school career, as was State MVP for three years (all except his freshman year). Coach Rupp from the University of Kentucky recruited him for their championship team. However, Dick’s mother fell ill prior to the start of school, so he opted to stay close and attend college at Tulane University in New Orleans. A star of their team, he led Tulane to victory over Kentucky in his senior year—the only game that Kentucky lost that season. For his successes on the basketball court, he was inducted into the Tulane Hall of Fame in 1991.

During college he began dating the woman who would become his wife of nearly sixty years, Lynne Trist Brennan. Dick met Lynne through his sister Dottie – Lynne’s friends from their years attending the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. Shortly after graduating from Tulane, Lynne and Dick married. Dick completed two years of Law School before he enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Augusta, Georgia and Williamsburg, Virginia.  When he returned to New Orleans, he intended to finish Law school but his brother, Owen, and both parents passed away within a year of one another, he instead went to work at the family’s restaurant, Brennan’s on Royal Street. With his siblings, Dick was instrumental in opening Brennan’s in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, as well as Chez Francis in Metairie, Louisiana, Mr. B’s Bistro and the Friendship House on the Gulf in Mississippi. During this time he and Lynne had two children - a daughter, Lauren, and a son, Dickie Jr.
In 1973 the Brennan’s split their restaurant interests, and Dick along with his siblings John, Adelaide, Ella and Dottie took control of Commander’s Palace. The New Orleans’ Garden District landmark had faded over the years and the siblings were tasked with reviving the nearly 100-year-old restaurant. Dick was passionate about New Orleans and America.  He recognized the sheer bounty of our region, including ingredients and talent. Instead of European chefs, he hired from the area. Paul Prudhomme and Dick collaborated on dishes that today have become synonymous with New Orleans cuisine.  He walked to work each day from his house on Third St., and each day he passed a pecan tree. He wondered why almonds were used to coat fish and not pecans that grow locally? From this simple question posed to Chef Prudhomme, pecan crusted fish was born. 

In an interview with The Times Picayune, Emeril Lagasse once said, “You could have no better mentors that Ella and Dick.  They are absolutely the best.  They are legends.  They are masters of the restaurant business.”  Emeril was the Executive Chef at Commander’s Palace from 1982 – 1989. 

The same could be said about his taste in spirits. He featured California wine on the list at Commander’s Palace years before this was commonplace. Dan Duckhorn from Duckhorn Wine said that Dick believed in him and his product and that he was the first to put it on a wine list. He was well known for saying “If you’re going to drink whiskey, drink American, drink bourbon!”

When Dick and his siblings first bought Commander’s, their goal, similar to any new restaurant’s goal, was to bring guests in the door. Breakfast at Brennan’s had been very popular and they wanted to create a similar environment filled with celebration for brunch. It was Dick who thought that two of New Orleans most valued cultural possessions – food and Jazz - would make a fantastic marriage as “Jazz Brunch.” On Saturday, Dickie Jr., Lauren, and his cousins headed downtown on the Streetcar with paper flyers. They handed them out on Canal and throughout the Quarter. Not sure what to expect the next day for brunch he staffed a little more than usual. The turnout beat all expectations, and the next weekend he called in reinforcements in the form of his kids, nieces and nephews and their friends! That was the beginning of what today is celebrated around New Orleans and throughout the country – Jazz Brunch.

“For his contributions and dedication to the restaurant industry and for creating the concept of the now world-famous Jazz Brunch, Dick was inducted in the LRA’s Hall of Fame in 1978,” said Harris.

Friend, Chef, and New Orleans restaurant owner Frank Brigtsen recalled, “I learned to sauté under the watchful eyes of Mr. Dick Brennan, who monitored every single plate that left the kitchen for Sunday Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace.  Not all of my omelets passed muster.  “Can we do a little better than that?” he would gently ask.  His generous spirit, innate brilliance, and warm heart touched me throughout the years, whether it was a touch of Pernod at his home on Fat Tuesday morning, his winning smile at a special event, or his gracious charm when dining at Brigtsen’s with his lovely wife Lynne.  His mark is felt throughout the city of New Orleans, a testament to a life well lived.  I am grateful for his friendship.”

Hand in hand with his desire to share his love of New Orleans with visitors, he co-founded the Krewe of Bacchus with his nephew, Pip Brennan. At the time Bacchus was founded, the norm for most Mardi Gras krewes was to invest the majority of member’s dues into the social balls and related krewe activities. Dick and Pip ensured that the majority of the Krewe of Bacchus’ dues would be used toward creating better floats and throws (beginning what is now commonplace of having dues include a bag of custom throws). This in turn meant a better Mardi Gras for visitors and locals along the parade route and helped improve the world’s best “free party!”

Above all, Dick was a mentor—a mentor to his children, his grandchildren, his chefs and countless individuals who proudly don their black and whites. As much as New Orleans and Dick are one in the same, so can be said for him and hospitality. His restaurants were an extension of his home, a place where guests came for the complete experience; from food to service, it was a place where everyone felt special. He leaves this legacy, along with so much more, through his children and the restaurants they operate, as well as the several restaurants operated by his extended family—all of his former employees.

In Hungry Town, New Orleans’ food critic, radio host and author Tom Fitzmorris wrote, “He’s by quite a large margin the most interesting person I’ve come to know on my own beat.” He also believed that, “Dick commands the highest regard from other people in the business, especially his former employees.  Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse consider Mr. Dick (as they and everyone else who ever worked for him call him) among the world’s most astute restaurateurs.”

“He was a legend and on behalf of the entire LRA membership, we extend our condolences to his wife, Lynne, son Dickie, daughter Lauren, and the entire Brennan family,” added Harris. “His passing is a great loss to everyone who was blessed to know him.” 

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