Chef Meg Bickford: On Collaboration, Freedom, and Her Passion at Commander’s Palace

Since June 2008, Chef Megan Bickford, best known as Chef Meg, has worked for the Commander’s Family of Restaurants and, in October 2020, became their Executive Chef after the notable departure of Chef Tory McPhail. Chef Meg has spent her entire career as part of the Commander’s family, which has grown and expanded since the Brennan family took over the restaurant in 1974.1 Commander’s Palace, first opened in 1893, is a prominent New Orleans landmark best known for its beautiful Garden District location, award-winning food, and encapsulating what is so beloved about Louisiana cooking and culture.2 On neworleans.com, it is the first restaurant listed on a list of the Best Restaurants in the city, and on nola.eater.com, it is listed as number fifteen out of thirty-eight essential restaurants to visit when in New Orleans. When Chef Meg, a native Louisianian with roots in New Orleans and LaRose, took over as Executive Chef, she captured the headlines as the first woman to hold this leading role. After the announcement of her appointment, Chef Meg was interviewed by many local publications as well as more national ones, in which she discussed the unique collaborative nature of the kitchen in Commander’s Palace. However, many of these profiles focused on her womanhood, failing to note her role as the first native Louisianan to hold this role since Chef Paul Prudhomme. In interviewing her, I had the opportunity to listen to her fierce passion for Commander’s Palace and its food, learn about how their collaborative kitchen has functioned historically, and why Commander’s Palace has remained one of the most beloved New Orleans restaurants for almost 130 years.

Commander’s Palace on Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA in April 2020
https://www.fsrmagazine.com/consumer-trends/commanders-palace-and-spirit-hospitality-after-covid-19

To Chef Meg, who was recruited by Commander’s Palace following her graduation from the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, the collaborative culture of Commander’s was started by Ella Brennan and Chef Paul Prudhomme, a Cajun chef in a time when, as Chef Meg explained, “everything was drenched in butter and covered in sauce,” describing it as, “the wonderful world of Cajun food back in the 80s.”3 Nevertheless, Ella Brennan wanted to do Cajun food on an elevated level, and although some thought no one would enjoy it, she and Chef Prudhomme made it work together.4 According to Chef Meg, those who affectionately knew Ella Brennan joked about her knowledge of food but lack of skill in the kitchen, often wondering if she even owned a saucepan. This collaborative atmosphere “skyrocketed” Commander’s Palace’s remarkable success leading to Ella Brennan’s recruitment of Chef Emeril Lagasse, best known nationally for his Food Network television show, right out of culinary school, and together, the two continued to transform the culinary landscape in New Orleans. Lagasse and Brennan had an “incredibly strong” relationship that, at one point, meant Lagasse was running Commander’s Palace as both Executive Chef and General Manager. Ella Brennan maintained this relationship with Chef Tory McPhail, and for Chef Meg, learning and growing in the Commander’s Palace, collaboration and creativity were essential. She says, “for me personally, had I not come up in it in a kitchen or in a business that carried such a strong feeling for that and fostering that kind of creative, open space, I don’t think that I would have made it this far here,” She continues, “I think every time I was promoted here, I was definitely not ready for it, so to have people that were allowed to make the decisions to do that, even at a risk, and having that that trusting relationship with all the other people that make decisions, definitely helped me in my career, because it allowed me the opportunity to move up the ranks, even when I wasn’t necessarily quite ready, to be shoved and pushed along the way.”

Ella Brennan and Emeril Lagasse at Commander’s Palace from Miss Ella Of Commander’s Palace https://gardenandgun.com/articles/ella-brennan-meant/

Since Ella Brennan’s death in 2018, women in the Brennan family have eagerly continued the tradition of collaboration and creativity, even as they have gotten older. Historically, the commercial kitchen has not been a place safe for or entirely open to women, but Commander’s Palace spent its most influential years under the tenure of Ella Brennen and now under her daughter and niece, Ti Adelaide Martin and Lally Brennan. The selection of Chef Meg, first as Executive Chef at Cafe Adelaide, a former Brennan-owned restaurant, in 2018, and now as Executive Chef of Commander’s Palace, was just another business decision for the Brennan family. After her appointment at Cafe Adelaide, Chef Meg tells the story of sitting with Ella Brennan and Ti Martin, and when Martin told her mother that Meg was the first female Executive Chef in their Group, she responded with, “So?” Although Ella Brennan was thrilled with Chef Meg’s new role at Cafe Adelaide, it had never been about appointing a woman; it had been about selecting the right person for the job. Chef Meg never set out to make herself the first woman in the position, she set out to be the best Chef she could be, and in the retelling of this conversation with Ella Brennan and Ti Martin, it was apparent that Brennan’s validation of her skill was more important than being the first. When I asked about Commander’s relationship with women in leadership, Chef Meg told me that their Key team, which manages Commander’s Palace’s daily operations, is eighty percent women. This culture of women in leadership has been there for a long time and is all about conversation, with her telling me, “it’s all about discussion, everything that we do gets discussed to the ends of the earth, and we look at all the bad, and we look at all the good, it’s our job to prepare, to protect…we all are allowed to speak our perspectives or speak our opinions about things.”

Ti Adelaide Martin, Lally Brennan, Dottie Brennan and Ella Brennan Prior to Her Death
https://www.nrn.com/people/fine-dining-pioneer-ella-brennan-dies-92

In Chef Meg’s view, Commander’s Palace’s goal has always been to “raise people up,” and everything else was consequential. The leadership wants people to come and learn, soak up the collaborative environment, and succeed, whether they stay at Commander’s Palace or move on. At the end of our interview, Chef Meg showed me an older document left in her office from Chef McPhail’s tenure that displayed each Executive Chef’s “family tree” of chefs that they had mentored, which she told me could have at least twenty more names added to it, including her own. In a place like Commander’s Palace, where they want to serve the public excellent food while training new generations of fantastic chefs, trust must exist. In telling me about this atmosphere, her passion was palpable, saying, “To be in a collaborative environment, there has to be so much trust, because it’s not about making the wrong decision, it’s about having a voice that’s heard. And it’s about being able to say how you really feel about something, and… a sounding board that’s going to receive that, listen to that, think about that, and then respond… and that’s what collaboration is kind of all about, having the freedom to speak and the freedom to think, and being in that safe place to do it.”

While fewer Brennans are managing the Group today, Chef Meg earnestly explained that “as the restaurant gets older, they’ve just started collecting more of us to be the family that’s running the business.” When an influential family like the Brennans, known for being so successful in their operation of Commander’s Palace, makes their overall business decisions together with their team, it allows people like Chef Meg to return to her smaller team and “foster creativity.” In environments where creativity can be expressed, considerable success and exceptional longevity are prone to happen, evident in Commander’s Palace’s profitable tenure. When I asked Chef Meg about Commander’s Palace’s longevity, she enthusiastically agreed, saying, “Commander’s could have easily stopped in 1980 and we could be doing the same food that we were doing in 1980, and people would still like it, and we would have a lot of visitors that would visit our restaurant every time they came to New Orleans, but we wouldn’t be nearly what we are today, and we wouldn’t have the talent because nobody wants to be stuck in 1980.” Under her tenure the menu has evolved greatly, especially due to the pandemic forcing their unexpected closure, and on the topic of the future, she says, “We nod to our past a lot and we love our past and we love where we came from, but it’s definitely not where we’re going, and I think that collaborative environment and the push for evolution and push for creativity is what keeps this restaurant around and it’s what’s gonna keep it around for a very long time.”

Lally Brennan, Ti Martin, and Meg Bickford in Front of Commander’s Palace, 2020. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/american-south/2020/11/09/commanders-palace-appoints-chef-meg-bickford/3677965001/

Listening to Chef Meg talk about her career at Commander’s Palace and the collaborative environment the restaurant has maintained made it clear what a unique atmosphere the Brennans have created. As an amusing final question, I asked Chef Meg what she would order at Commander’s Palace for dinner. Surprisingly, it was a question she had not been asked before, but her answer made clear her enthusiasm and passion for the work she does. The first thing she told me was that she would eat “a lot of food,” and each dish she gave me showed the uniqueness of the New Orleans cooking Commander’s Palace exemplifies: Garlic Bread, Citrus Glazed Pork Belly, Creole Tomato Crawfish Curry, The Miso Mustard Gulf Fish, and for dessert, the Strawberry Shortcake.5 When people imagine New Orleans cuisine, especially Cajun and Creole cooking, these might not be the first types of dishes that come to mind, but they showcase the influences of the many different kinds of people that call New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole, home. As Executive Chefs of Commander’s Palace, Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, Tory McPhail, and now Chef Meg have dedicated themselves to the art of refining New Orleans food and showcasing it to the world. Commander’s has significantly evolved since the Brennan Family took it over, and with Chef Meg’s dedication to the restaurant, it is clear that under her tenure, this evolution continues, allowing Commander’s to thrive as a staple of New Orleans food culture.

Notes

  1. “Executive Chef Megan ‘Meg’ Bickford Bio.” Commander’s Palace. https://www.commanderspalace.com/uploads/files/meg%20bickford%20bio%20WEB.pdf
  2.  “Our Story.” Commander’s Palace. https://www.commanderspalace.com/about/our-story.
  3. Bickford, Megan. Interview by Author. iPhone Voice Memo. New Orleans, LA. April 27, 2022. 
  4. Pope, John. “Ella Brennan, Renowned New Orleans Restaurateur, Dies at 92.” NOLA.com, May 31, 2018. https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/eat-drink/article_75dd4a89-c716-5a91-8421-a4c5456ff43a.html
  5. Bickford, Megan. Interview by Author. iPhone Voice Memo. New Orleans, LA. April 27, 2022.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.