"A vivid, engrossing evocation of New Orleans, an exceptional city, in part because of characters like Randy Fertel's 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
"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 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 cryand 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
"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
"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
"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, Feet on the Street: Rambles around New Orleans
Rodney Fertel and Ruth Udstad married in 1947. Their fiery 11-year marriage would be characterized by plenty of spending, gambling, and epic battles, and would produce two sons and years of recriminations. The child of shady New Orleans pawnbrokers, Rodney inherited a fortune and his father's notion that "stealing is a 'duty,'" though Rodney would later become famous for his attempt to give back: when he ran for mayor in 1969, his only promise was to acquire a gorilla for the local zoo (he lost, but bought two gorillas anyway). Rodney and Ruth used their inheritance to live the good life, but after their divorce, Ruth was left with little. So she did what anyone would do: mortgaged her home and bought a steak house she'd discovered in the classifieds, initially offering an à la carte menu of just three steaks, four salads, and a few sides. Raised in the Delta in a tradition of great meat and good cooking, Ruth turned out to have business acumen as well, resulting in Ruth's Chris Steak House becoming the biggest fine-dining group in the world. While the book proposes to be a biography of his colorful parents and the famous restaurant, Fertel-who once sued the company and thus, his own mother-seems to use the space to air his grievances against his runaway father and emotionally distant matriarch. Still, like the sultry New Orleans streets in which the bulk of the story unfolds, this book is thick with drama and rich characters.
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Fertel introduces what can be described only as one of the "royal" families of New Orleans. The author's mother, Ruth Fertel, shot to fame as the owner of the now-famous Ruth's Chris Steak House. Her husband, Rodney, was a character in his own right—a wealthy man who once ran for mayor of New Orleans and promised to buy a pair of gorillas for the city zoo if elected, and he dressed as a gorilla during his campaign. It was a time when personalities such as Ruthie the Duck Girl roamed the streets of the French Quarter—when New Orleans had characters as well as character. Fertel brings it all back in this touching memoir, which offers a painfully true look at the faults and weaknesses of his distinctly New Orleans family. His story reminds us how hard it can be to love and be loved by such larger-than-life characters. VERDICT Recommended for any library with a New Orleans or Louisiana collection. Non New Orleans-based readers may also find this stimulating.—Sonnet Ireland, Univ. of New Orleans Lib.