I grew up in Washington State and was always into food. We grew up picking strawberries, we had a garden, and there was hunting and fishing—food was always very important to our family. I just decided, Hey, I think I can do this and make a living out of it, so I went to culinary school in Seattle and then I took some really good advice from one of the chef instructors who told me, "Look, if you really want to be a great chef, you only have two options in life: If you want to be a great chef, go to New York City. But if you really want to learn how to cook, you move down to Louisiana because it's the home of the most original food in America. If you can understand and make it in New Orleans, and you can understand great flavor and how restaurants operate, then you can move anywhere in the world and always have a job." And that stuck with me, so I moved down to New Orleans about 21 years ago.
Immersing myself in the New Orleans culture itself beyond the food culture changed my life because this community's been settled for 300 years. It was the home of the first opera house, the music scene is huge, the weather's great, the food is dynamite, the beaches are really close, and the flavors and recipes aren't half bad either. New Orleans is famous for having so many great recipes and so many great chefs coming through the city, so if you really want to be a great chef, you need to work for the great chefs. A lot of those sane chefs really made their marks here in the city.
In my mind, New Orleans has always been about Creole food. Creole's been a more refined, European-style food compared to Cajun. And these days, it's ever-changing—generations ago, it really was a cross between French and Spanish influenced food. That, and some sort of Chinese, German, Italian, and a lot of Vietnamese influences. These days, there isn't a whole lot of culture that's outside the realm; it's probably America's first fusion food. For me as a kid growing up around great local seafood and wild game, coming out here to New Orleans—where we get to hunt fish all year round and get to have all these incredible influences help craft how we think about Creole food as we move forward—is amazing.
I feel like I'm a freak of nature in a lot of different ways, but one of the ways is that I really, really, really study a tremendous amount. Nobody has any business changing or altering Creole food unless you've got a very keen idea on what it's taken to get us here the last 300 years. There's just some rules that Creole families would never do. You'd never have file powder in seafood gumbo. But you'd never know that unless you're going through antique cookbooks and having a pretty good grip on what's happening with the local community. I think in order to be a great creative chef, you really need to be a history ham and appreciate where we're coming from.
There was a dish by chef Jamie Shannon that's still on the menu at Commanders Palace (where I cook) today called Shrimp and Tasso Henican—it's named by one of the long family friends—and it's wild shrimp, spicy house-made ham, Crystal hot sauce, pickled okra, and pepper jelly. It's the best appetizer you've ever had in your life. I think a lot of folks in the Pacific Northwest or the northeast really groove on simply done seafood that's fresh and right out of the ocean. Down here, we have more seafood that passes through the port of New Orleans than anywhere else in 48 states, and we're only second behind Alaska. Pair that with amazing flavor, great heritage, and the great history of America and Louisiana, and there are so many positive things happening down here in the food world.
The hallmark of the Brennan family is, "Let's try to push the envelope of Creole food." And if you look back to Emeril [Lagasse] and Jamie Shannon, you certainly have your classic dishes that will never go away, like turtle soup or some version of a pecan-crusted fish or bread pudding soufflé. But throughout this, the Brennan family and I have really learned to trust each other for many years. They said, "Look, run this restaurant like it's yours—put Commander's Palace back on the heat," and you can't do that if you're scared or nervous or not taking risks. So we just educated our cooks as much as possible, lead by example, put in a lot of hard work, and made Commander's what it is today—right back on top, where it was. Just better.
As told to Amanda Arnold.