Pot Luck

Brennan’s of Houston Gutted by Flames

Photo by Daniel Kramer / Click here for more Houston images

Brennan’s of Houston was consumed by flames on the morning of September 13, at the height of Hurricane Ike’s fury. Several employees were trapped inside and injured in the blaze. We hope they make a complete and speedy recovery.

The restaurant’s general manager, Alex Brennan-Martin, who has run the Houston restaurant for over 20 years, established The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund after Hurricane Katrina. The charity raised over a million dollars to help struggling New Orleans restaurant professionals. It is sadly ironic that Brennan’s of Houston ended up as a hurricane victim itself.

Alex Martin-Brennan is awaiting a determination from the fire department as to whether the building is a total loss or if some part of the structure can be salvaged. But whether they rebuild from the existing foundation or start over from scratch, the Brennan’s family has already decided that there will be another Brennan’s in Houston.

But for now we can only remember the old place fondly.

Memories of Brennan’s

Brian McManus, Brennan’s apprentice chef, 1998-2000

For me, Brennan's was a birth. I was young and stupid and didn't know how to cook very well. What I found there was a staff of cooks that excepted nothing less than the best, and pushed for it day in and day out, even from someone as green as I was back then. The other line cooks and chefs were so passionate, it was borderline creepy to a newbie like me. The first time I watched them all hunker around a fresh shipment of mission figs or whatever that had just come in off a truck I thought they were putting me on. I soon learned they weren't. Their enthusiasm for the work was contagious, and before long I was doing the same.

The line and the kitchen in general were run like a military operation. I despised that at the time, but now, removed from it, I see its value. Cooking well for a restaurant as big and with a reputation as grand as Brennan's was HARD WORK, and, when we did it well, it was the most rewarding job a guy could want. (Even though we, as employees, went broke doing it.) It was also pretty cool knowing you were working for a landmark institution and that chef Carl Walker had cooked with Emeril and tapped maple trees to make his own syrup. And you always would hear that, say, Mark Cox of Mark's or any chef working in Houston worth anything had spent time on the Brennan's line. That helped you get through the brutal work.

Aside from learning to cook at Brennan's, I learned to eat there too. I had my first foie gras there, my first truffle, my first ostrich, my first boar, my first properly made andouille. If we got in a shipment of something a chef thought you might have never had before, he'd cook it up for you right then and there, even if you were skeptical of eating veal cheeks or what have you. We also had staff wine tastings that were open to all, not just front-of-the-house-staff like most places I worked afterward.

I cooked for Bush 41 and his husband, Barbara, at Brennan's. I taught Ray Childress how to make crepes (don't ask). That was another cool thing. You just knew the expectation in the dining room every night was astronomical. Bad meals were not an option. My old sous chef, Mark Holley (went on to Pesce, not sure where he is now), used to get us up for a hard night's work at the beginning of every night by telling us who would be coming through the door. "Teenagers on a first date. Guy wants to impress the girl. Couples on the 15th wedding anniversary. Man puts on his best suit. Woman puts on her finest dress. Every person walking through that door tonight is going to be celebrating something. Let's give them memories."

It was special. I'll miss it dearly.

Brian McManus, the Philadelphia Weekly's music editor, used to write about music and food for the Houston Press. He has also worked in Houston as both a musician and a chef.

-- Robb Walsh

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