Randy Fertel with his wife Bernadette Murray Fertel at their 2007 wedding at Audubon Park.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber for the New York Times
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak:
A New Orleans Family Memoir
The Author as Philanthropist
Randy Fertel Fertel has taught English at the university level at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College, the University of New Orleans, and most recently with the Graduate Faculty of the New School University. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard where he received a teaching award bestowed by student vote. A specialist in the literature of the Vietnam War, he organized a major conference called My Lai 25 Years After: Facing the Darkness, Healing the Wounds, at Tulane University in 1994. The initiative received both a Special Humanities Award from the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities and an Addy Award for a direct-mail promotion piece he designed. Randy has served as a faculty member for Words & Music on many occasions, including last year when he delivered a moving introduction to the literature of war and to National Book Award Winner Tim O'Brien, who gave the keynote address at the National World War II Museum. This year with Vietnamese - American author Andrew Lam, Randy will address The Literature of Exile in the Global Village. He will also participate in a memoir discussion.
Randy is President of both the Fertel Foundation and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. The Fertel Foundation has a special interest in initiatives from which new communities and new insights may emerge and initiatives which challenge entrenched communities of power. One such project, the Ron Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling, is co-sponsored by the Nation Institute. Award ceremonies are held every spring at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. The New Orleans-based foundation, established in 1999, also supports projects to rebuild a better New Orleans – and create national models – in a post-Katrina world.The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, named for his late mother, is devoted to education in the New Orleans area and has long been a patron of Words & Music, a Literary Feast in New Orleans, which offers continuing education in the literary arts for developing writers of all ages. Randy—a member of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, which has made many recommendations to improve the local food system—leads the task force that brought the Edible Schoolyard, founded by Alice Water, to the Samuel J. Green School in New Orleans. The First “Edible Evening” was a smashing success with more than 600 supporters turning out to enjoy a mid-March garden party under the stars at the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans. The proceeds help ensure the sustainability of this nationally acclaimed garden and kitchen model program at Green Charter School. Special guest at the event was Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant, international food activist and creator of the original Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. Among the highlights: live music by New Orleans MusicianCorps Fellows and seasonal delicacies from great local restaurants including Bacchanal, Bayona, Beaucoup NOLA, Boucherie, Bourbon House, Chef April of ESYNOLA, Cochon, Commander’s Palace, Domenica, Emeril’s, La Divina Gelateria, MiLa, Mimi’s in the Marigny, Patois, Swiss Bakery, White Oak Plantation(Chef John Folse), Whole Foods. Randy also chairs a task force for Artist Corps, which is putting musicians back in the schools of New Orleans.
Randy here as sous chef for the Eidble Food project
About His New Book
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is the story of two larger-than-life characters and the son their lives helped to shape. Ruth Fertel was a petite, smart, tough-as-nails blonde with a weakness for rogues, who founded the Ruth’s Chris Steak House empire almost by accident. Rodney Fertel was a gold-plated, one-of-a-kind personality, a railbird-heir to wealth from a pawnshop of dubious repute just around the corner from where the teenage Louis Armstrong and his trumpet were discovered. Rodney traveled all over the world frittering away time and money, meeting and enjoying the company of other madcaps, such as Salvador Dali, in Spain, but was a less than responsible husband and father. In 1965, after her divorce from her eccentric husband, Ruth was a single mother figuring out how she was going to support herself and her children. A risk taker, she mortgaged her house for $22,000 to buy a small steak house in New Orleans. Then grew it into one of the city's greatest restaurants – Ruth's Chris Steak House. Today, it's a huge chain with more then 130 locations worldwide. This is the story we know. As with all things, however, the truth can be stranger than fiction. In The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak (University Press of Mississippi; hardcover; October 2011), Ruth's son, Randy Fertel, offers a poignant and bittersweet portrait of a legendary New Orleans family, and the famous steak house that bears their name. A masterful storyteller, Fertel weaves the captivating stories of his parents—Ruth, founder of Ruth's Chris, and Rodney, known as The Gorilla Man for his quixotic 1969 run for mayor when he pledged a gorilla for the Audubon Zoon—with the sights, sounds, and tastes of New Orleans.
For the first time, we get a behind-the-scenes look at the famous steak house, where Fertel first served as busboy, and later as Director of Marketing. With an insider's perspective, he recalls the glory days of the flagship, when the regulars included everyone from local politicians and political reporters to Fats Domino and debutantes. We learn of the company's meteoric expansion into seven countries and how a local steak house became an empire. Along the way, we discover the origins of their famous creamed spinach (a family recipe). Woven into this entrepreneurial story is the Empress herself who, despite a lack of foresight and penchant for gambling, leveraged her commanding presence and with sheer guts built the largest fine-dining chain in the country. Ruth's undeniable charisma leaps off the page to charm the pants off of us, flaws not withstanding.
Much more than a biography of two colorful characters, however, The Gorlla Man and the Empress of Steak, is a memoir of New Orleans – a tapestry of the language, people, food and places that have made the Crescent City unique among cities of the world. The book gives you an understanding of why New Orleanians can barely leave their city, even for a better job or just for a vacation. The city never bores its denizens and they are never tired of talking about it and their lives in it.
Praise for the Book
Randy Fertel is a shining example for developing writers to observe and follow. He began working on his memoir and never gave up polishing and refining, changing the entire concept of the book from the original, as he sought publication. And, all the while, he kept adding planks to his platform as a writer through philanthropy, of course, but also through by turning pieces of the pie into individual essays. By the time the book was in galley format at University Press of Mississippi, randy had published excerpts in notable journals and essay collections, such as My New Orleans, and aired segments on Travels with Dad on NPR. In the meantime, he collected endorsements/reviews from an incredible array of literary and culinary celebrities.
Lots of New Orleans history in this family story, which is wilder than the gorillas and almost as juicy as the steaks.
– Roy Blount Jr., author of Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans
Randy Fertel’s soulful Southern storytelling captures you instantly. I love how he uses the lens of family and food to tell the rich, complex history of New Orleans.
– Alice Waters, Founder, Chez Panisse Restaurant
Ambition, abandonment, revenge, the Napoleonic code, broken promises, gorillas, bad contracts, evil intentions, and lawsuits never-ending; they’re all here in Randy Fertel’s feast of a memoir, served with a healthy side of New Orleans history, and, for dessert, ville flottante! Balzac would be envious, Tennessee Williams would feel right at home.
– Valerie Martin, Orange Prize-winning author of Property and Mary Reilly
A vivid, engrossing evocation of New Orleans, an exceptional city, in part because of characters like his parents, Ruth and Rodney, the Empress of Steak and the Gorilla Man. A wonderful reading experience.
– Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
This memoir was a complete pleasure, beginning to end, full of love and zaniness and tenderness and absolutely fascinating detail. Randy Fertel was blessed with an incredible wealth of anecdote, and his prose brings it all vividly to life. What a fine piece of writing this is.
– Tim O’Brien, National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried
Funny, smart, poignant, and richly redolent of New Orleans, Randy Fertel’s The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is a brilliant memoir by a very talented writer indeed.
– Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain: Stories
A giant jambalaya of a book that throws into the pot a huge variety of ingredients that surprise,
delight, burn the tongue, sear the heart, make you laugh until you cry—and beg for more. Randy Fertel’s triumph, as a writer obsessed with history, is to have turned the story of his own disastrous family into the story of the city itself, and of its survival.
– Betty Fussell, James Beard Foundation Award-winner and author of Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is a one-of-a-kind real-life tale, as layered, rich, and full of surprises as a street map of New Orleans. Randy Fertel had the good fortune to be born to a pair of American originals, and his parents had the great fortune to live out their fascinating lives in front of a son who’s a natural-born storyteller. This is one of my favorite books of the year.
– Mark Childress, New York Times bestselling author of Georgia Bottoms and Crazy in Alabama
With unsparing honesty and love, Randy Fertel unravels the mystery of his eccentric, legendary parents. The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is by turns wry and sad, hilarious and heartbreaking, but always, always delectable.
– Stewart O’Nan, award-winning author of Emily, Alone
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is that rare memoir that manages to be both intimately personal and yet of broad appeal. For it is truly the portrait of a generation, even as it brings vividly to life a panoply of individual characters in New Orleans. They may be black or white or Creole; they may be male or female. But all fill the reader with joy and wonder, and a fair share of tears as well. Beautifully written, affectionate, witty, this book tugs us from one cover to the other.
– David H. Lynn, Editor, The Kenyon Review
This wonderfully affecting family memoir is a well-told tale of personalized social history, a sentient evocation of the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and feel of New Orleans and its sprawling interface with the mighty river and gulf that are its hope and despair, its inescapable fate. Drawing from 200 years of his family’s thrive-and-survive presence on the lip of a watery grave, Randy Fertel gives us a palpable sense of its essence—as close as you can get without living there yourself.
– John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History
His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.
– John T. Edge, series editor of Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing
Who better to deliver the strange soul of New Orleans, a city we can’t live without, than Randy Fertel?
Ruth and Rodney’s child, who suffered and gloried terribly at their hands, is New Orleans’s latest beautiful family memoirist.
– Paul Hendrickson, National Book Award finalist and author of Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott
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These programs are supported by
a grant from
the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of
In cooperation with the
Louisiana State Arts Council, and a grant from the
City of New Orleans.
Both grants are administered through the
Arts Council of New Orleans .