Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin on Balance, Bud's Broiler and Hospitality
Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin are co-proprietors of Commander’s Palace, SoBou, and Café Adelaide. They embody New Orleans’ tradition of hospitality in everevolving ways.
Here are excerpts from a wide-ranging conversation about the joys and challenges of balancing food, drink, work and play.
Edible New Orleans: Your restaurants all have ambitious cocktail programs, and you all wrote a book, In the Land of Cocktails, several years ago. Clearly you all have a thing for cocktails. Do you remember a moment when you fell in love with them?
Lally Brennan: Well, I shouldn’t say this but my first memory isn’t so much about a cocktail, but a Scotch and water, because my father would drink Scotch and water when I was a child. He’d get it down and there would be just ice and a little hint of the Scotch. He’d say, “Sweetie, fix me another Scotch and water” and I’d take that little sip. It was nothing—like when you are having red wine as a young child in Europe—with water in it.
Ti Adelaide Martin: But your daddy also drank Pernod.
LB: Pernod Frappe. When you were a child growing up and teething, parents would take a little bit of that and put it on the gums because it would numb the gums instantly.
TAM: It worked. Mine did the same thing. I grew up where there was a full bar. A whole room with furniture in it and a full bar. Beautiful. My Aunt Adelaide and my mother, who I lived with there, entertained constantly. That was very intriguing as a little kid, so I was behind the bar helping them and usually opening the door, because they weren’t ready yet, and welcoming whoever it might be, which was a string of people from just your friends to neighbors to famous people to eccentric people. I just never knew when I answered the door who it was going to be.
Edible New Orleans: Your family is known for hospitality and entertaining. Brunch is a huge part of that—from the jazz brunches here at Commander’s to the Hangover Hospitals at Café Adelaide.
LB: Actually, when the family was thinking about something new and fun to do, my Uncle Dick was in London. He called Aunt Ella and said, “I have an idea: Let’s do jazz brunch.”
TAM: He felt the need to call right then and interrupt her at dinner, which was a big deal to make a phone call from Europe in 1972.
LB: But the jazz musicians will start playing a second line song here at Commander’s and the staff and Ti and I jump up and start second lining around. Guests start jumping up and their faces are in such a rapture of happiness and fun.
TAM: This is someplace that allows them to be silly and they aren’t expecting that at Commander’s Palace, even though they should. We are very silly.
Edible New Orleans: Silly even feels naughty in those type of contexts.
TAM: We like naughty. We work real hard, but life’s meant to be lived and, you know, you’re not supposed to just pass on through in a boring old way. Work hard. Play hard.
Edible New Orleans: It seems as if you really do integrate your work and your general life, which is sort of against the age-old axiom “don’t mix business with pleasure.”
TAM: Mom really taught us that, in this industry, it’s the only way and it makes it fun.
LB: Your mom said, “What we do is not our job. It is a lifestyle.” And it is so true. It is not a job; this is what we do every day, all day long.
Edible New Orleans: It seems you’d have to have a very good sense of balance.
TAM: I think you’re right and we’re lucky enough to have that. Not everyone in our family or work does. I try to eat healthy, but I’m going to eat whatever the hell I want. But I think about it more over the course of a week than over the course of a day. In other words, I don’t have to be good every day. If I was bad last night, I’m going to be good today. It’s not a thing that feels like, oooh, I’ve got to be careful all the time. But you do sometimes. We do try not to drink every day; there is nothing wrong with that, but we try not to. So it is about balance.
LB: If we had a drink with everybody who wanted to have a drink with us, we’d be lushes. The Angostura Restorer—a drink that is non-alcoholic, but it could look like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. A lot of times, we’ll give the bartender a wink and he’ll just whip one up for us. And then we’re enjoying that with all our friends.
Edible New Orleans: If you do overindulge, how do you get rid of a hangover?
TAM: Well, OK. Trick number one: If you are considering being over-served, drinking a glass of water with every drink is one heck of a good trick. That’s my main trick for a long evening. Also, you certainly might have a cocktail or two before dinner. But it is not about shots; it is not about chugging.
TAM: Not shots. We don’t do shots.
LB: Shall we say it?
TAM and LB: Shots are stupid. Shots are for amateurs.
LB: It is all about drinking good cocktails, not getting drunk. You know what I mean?
Edible New Orleans: I don’t know anyone who needs help getting drunker faster.
TAM: Right! So why do a shot?
Edible New Orleans: What about the hair of the dog?
TAM: You can’t beat two Alleve before you go to bed.
LB: You go take a run in the morning, maybe. But thank goodness, we try not to get drunk.
TAM: We don’t. It is not attractive to be drunk. I’m not saying that no one has ever been over-served, but it is rare. I think when that has happened, I’m doing what everybody else is. I want something fabulous and greasy. Bud’s Broiler #9. With the sauce and the cheese and the onions. Yea.
Edible New Orleans: Let’s talk about what is new in the New Orleans drinking scene.
TAM: I’m just happy that 10–12 years later, you can go more places and get a good drink. There are still too many where that is not true. And I’m not trying to be ugly about anywhere but there are still too many places that you are like, “Really? Sour mix? Come on, people. Haven’t we gotten that far yet?”
LB: All the infused simple syrups. Those are fun. The different bitters. That’s been going on for a while. Simple syrups.
TAM: As far as what is going on in town, to me it’s a happy thing. I do object vehemently to the attitude “I’m going to teach you about drinks” or “We don’t serve rum here” or “We don’t ...” you know?
We’re going to try to turn you on to something wonderful. But if you say, “I want a Cosmopolitan,” we’re going to smile at you and take your money and make the best Cosmopolitan we can. You know what I mean?
So that’s not just New Orleans, but that is all young bartenders who have not come to fully appreciate that the bartender is one of the greatest examples of hospitality and it would never be hospitable to make someone feel ignorant or anything like that.
That happens with chefs too, before they understand that it is all about the guest.
And if we can happily bring you along with what we’re doing—fine. If you don’t want to be brought along, we are going to do whatever you want to do and we’re still so happy to be doing it.
Edible New Orleans: No one ever goes out to have a drink to feel worse about themselves.
Edible New Orleans: New Orleans has a way of keeping old things relevant and you are good both at that, with Commander’s, and at introducing new restaurant concepts such as SoBou. How do you both push an envelope and maintain traditions, successfully and simultaneously?
TAM: If you want to make us really mad, talk about Commander’s being old. Because Commander’s is just constantly evolving. After Katrina, we were closed and people would ask, “Oh, are you going to keep all the old dishes?” And I’d say, “Name them.” There aren’t but about four. They change every week. The only things that don’t come off the menu are turtle soup, Shrimp and Tasso Henican, Pecan Fish, and Bread Pudding and a handful of the other desserts. So we are constantly pushing the envelope because that it what it is all about for us.
Hopefully the only thing that is traditional about Commander’s is that we’ve been in the same location since 1880— and, hopefully, the hospitality.
LB: We have a staff—front of the house, back of the house—of these talented, passionate people who would revolt against us if we didn’t let them be as creative as they could possibly be.
TAM: It is what turns us all on. We’re all foodies.
LB: Our wine room was really an idea from our staff. Lots of ideas come together that way. And hopefully we empower them enough that they are constantly thinking and coming to us with ideas that maybe we didn’t think about.
Edible New Orleans: It sounds like you have a great dynamic going on in your restaurants. You all are family, but there is the family you forge as a staff, culminating most obviously in the family meal. What do you do differently in terms of making such an atmosphere that people love so much?
LB: Our staff knows that we would never ask them to do something that we wouldn’t do ourselves. I think they see us right there in the trenches with them. We try to earn their respect. And we’re very approachable.
TAM: We’re just shoulder to shoulder. I love to work a shift and get my arms around it. You are right in there with them and when you make it through a shift it is a win and it’s a high. We do a good job of sort of perpetually applauding the little moments of excellence. We take our pre-meal meetings very seriously and we consider ourselves the head cops when we have to be, but we’re 98% of the time head cheerleaders and we constantly applaud the excellence and warmth and great hospitality and then it feeds on itself. It becomes part of the culture, but it does take constant energy and effort. We have been blessed with this great team. We believe at our core that it’s an honor to serve
I think a lot of young people think that’s demeaning—that somebody kind of yelling for you to do something or, God forbid, snapping their fingers or something. But we truly believe that this world is this sometimes-horrific carousel and that we’re a place for you to get off and come into this bubble and we don’t want the bubble to burst. And anything bad that happens, we say is the bubble bursting. So we talk about things like that constantly. We literally talk about body language and we emulate it.
You can’t come here and work with Lally Brennan and not try to be as gracious as Lally. I mean, you can, but we’ll probably fire you.
LB: Oh, this one. Thank you, Ti. What is that saying?
TAM: We may hold the keys to Commander’s Palace, but it belongs to New Orleans. We feel that way and we want New Orleans, above anything, to be proud of this restaurant. No one goes home more depressed than us when we blow it.
Interview by Stephanie Carter