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THE GORILLA MAN AND THE EMPRESS OF STEAK by Randy Fertel

THE GORILLA MAN AND THE EMPRESS OF STEAK

A New Orleans Family Memoir

By Randy Fertel

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-61703-082-6
Publisher: Univ. Press of Mississippi

New Orleans forms the richly atmospheric backdrop for a determined, eccentric family who found success in the steakhouse business.

University English teacher and president of two foundations named in his mother’s honor, Fertel eloquently traces his family history back to his childhood as one of two sons born to food lover Ruth and gambling aficionado Rodney, heir to a shady pawnshop business renowned for being “the biggest fences in the South.” Fertel’s parents married young in 1948 and enjoyed 11 years together before separating, Ruth leaning toward business and Rodney, after taking his son on lavish vacations to Europe, launching two outlandish New Orleans mayoral bids with separate campaign promises: one to acquire a gorilla for the zoo, the other to relocate the Blarney Stone to the Superdome. Though the narrative is a bit disjointed and lacks a cohesive ebb and flow (the generous photographs help, however), Fertel’s memoir gains momentum when he details his mother’s fascinating and resilient ascent to eventual nationwide notoriety with the 1965 purchase of the Chris Steak House brand. Her ownership of the restaurant did not get off to good start, as the flagship restaurant was located in a sketchy part of town, some bad blood with the former owner erupted and a fire forced her to relocate and rename it the “hard to forget” Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Christened “the First Lady of American restaurants,” Fertel expands further on his mother’s notoriously delectable taste in quality meats, her distinctive flare for atmosphere and her love and respect for her staff. Ruth succumbed to cancer in 2002, having sold the business three years prior—though, her son lovingly notes, she remains “one of the great restaurateurs in a city of great restaurants.” Fertel ends his memoir with a somber chapter on Hurricane Katrina’s massive devastation, which swept five feet of water into the Ruth’s Chris flagship store.

An uneven but zesty chronicle—worth a look for food historians.