Rodney Fertel hadn’t worked a day in his life when he decided to run for mayor of New Orleans in 1969. Well before Katrina, the city was famous for potholes, poor schools and official corruption of a high order. But my father’s platform bypassed all these minor issues and went to the heart of what ailed the city: our zoo lacked a gorilla. His campaign slogan: Don’t settle for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a gorilla.
In 1965, a single mother mortgaged her house for $22,000 to buy a small steak house in New Orleans. That woman, my mom Ruth Fertel, grew it into one of the city’s greatest restaurants – Ruth’s Chris Steak House. What started as 17 tables is now the world’s largest fine-dining group, with over 135 locations worldwide.
This is the story most people know. But, as with all things, the truth is stranger than fiction.
Jazz Among the Pawnshops
Rodney grew up around the family pawnshop on Rampart Street in the 1920s, a world of immigrant Jewish life surrounded by the violence and cultural upheaval of the birth of jazz. Just blocks away lay Storyville, the red-light district where jazz was born, and even closer, Back o’ Town where Louis Armstrong got his start. Rodney’s family was as colorful as that, though there was a dark streak running through the generations. His grandparents, who left Rodney enough money when he was 21 to make him comfortable for life, were said to be the biggest fences of stolen property in the South. His mother was a kleptomaniac who used a shopping bag as a purse, and that purse as a shopping bag.
Rodney was a sporting man: an athlete, a gambler and a world traveler. He lived in Cuba under Battista and met Salvador Dalí in Spain. His world was filled with Damon Runyonesque characters like his campaign manager “The Black Cat” and his handicapper “Paul the Tout.” After he lost his mayoral campaign, he brought two lowland gorillas from Singapore back to the Audubon zoo, saying that he was the only candidate in history who had kept all his campaign promises even though he’d lost. He named them Red Beans and Rice.
A Mississippi River Girl
My mother, Ruth Udstad Fertel, spent her childhood a galaxy away from Rodney’s universe, but just 50 miles distance as the crow flies, in little Happy Jack, Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Of Alsatian descent, her family for generations had been farmers, hunters, fishermen — and great cooks. Were they Cajun? No, they would answer, they were “French French.” This high school valedictorian went off to Louisiana State University at 15 and earned a degree in chemistry and physics. Asked how she came to marry my father, she would say, “Well, I was from the country; I liked to ride horses; your father had a stable.”
Ruth and Rodney had a decade together racing thoroughbred horses. Ruth was the first licensed female thoroughbred horse trainer in Louisiana. When they decided to divorce in 1958, after 11 years of marriage and two sons, it took seven rancorous years to settle. At that time, it was the biggest divorce case in Louisiana history. Rodney loved a good fight.
The Accidental Entrepreneur
When it was done, Ruth brushed herself off, mortgaged the home she received in the settlement, and bought a little steak house with 17 tables. The women in Happy Jack hunt, fish, gamble and cuss, but for the most part they don’t eat in fancy restaurants. So when my mother bought that little steak house in 1965 for $22,000, no one imagined she was founding a global dynasty, Ruth’s Chris Steak House. When she sold the business in 1999, there were 85 Ruth’s Chris restaurants around the world with over $300 million in annual sales. Today they number over 135.
The Gorilla Man and The Empress of Steak is a true “yarn” about these colorful characters, yoking together, as the marriage did, two worlds not often connected. We take a trip downriver to Happy Jack, in the Mississippi River Delta, with its French-Alsatian roots, bountiful tables and self-reliant lifestyle that inspired a restaurant legend. The story also offers a close-up of life in the Old Jewish Quarter on Rampart Street — and how it intersected with the denizens of “Back ‘o’ Town,” just a few blocks away, who brought jazz from New Orleans to the world.
The Universal Story of a New Orleans Family
This memoir is also the universal story of family and our relationships with the people whose DNA we share. My parents had fascinating lives of their own — but to live inside their worlds wasn’t exactly nurturing. What I longed for was a dad who was reasonable, caring, and normal. But Rodney was odd, self-centered, and nuts. My slight, feisty mother was determined to feed the world, but her appetite for competition included everyone, even her offspring. Ruth won every accolade in the restaurant industry and became a female icon in the business world. But the Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself, letting her underlings (and her sons) fight over the crumbs. Nearly all the key players in Ruth’s Chris ended up suing the company in an effort to get what they felt they had deserved. I must confess that I, too, was among them.
Because The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak takes place in and around New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina also plays a role in this tale. The Fertel clan lived for decades just blocks away from the present Superdome; my mother’s family occupied that spit of land at the mouth of the Mississippi where Katrina first made landfall with sustained winds of 150 mph. My memoir revisits these places and its people in the aftermath of the storm. Its happy ending recounts a rebirth in progress — of a city and a newly married man.
Now in its 3rd Printing
from the University Press of Mississippi