Randy Fertel’s The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir is a poignant and bittersweet portrait of one of New Orleans’ most legendary families, as well as the famous steak house that bears their name.
A masterful storyteller, Fertel weaves the larger-than-life stories of his parents – Ruth, founder of Ruth’s Chris, and Rodney, known as “The Gorilla Man” for his quixotic 1969 run for mayor – with the sights, sounds, and tastes of New Orleans.
Rodney became known as the “Gorilla Man” when he ran for mayor of New Orleans on a single campaign promise—buying a pair of gorillas for the zoo. He managed a paltry 308 votes but he purchased the gorillas anyway.
Readers get a behind-the-scenes look at the famous Ruth’s Chris Steak House, where Fertel first served as busboy, and later as Director of Marketing – until the day he sued the company, and by proxy, his mother. There from the beginning, Fertel takes us to the day Ruth mortgaged her house, to the liquor-fueled board meetings and multi-million dollar lawsuits that followed.
With an insider’s perspective, he recalls the glory days of the flagship, when the regulars included everyone from Governor Edwin Edwards to Fats Domino, to the company’s meteoric expansion into seven countries. We learn how a local steak house became an empire, as well as the origins of their famous creamed spinach (a family recipe).
Woven into this entrepreneurial story is the Empress herself who, despite her lack of foresight and penchant for gambling, leveraged her commanding presence and sheer guts to build the largest fine-dining chain in the country. Ruth’s undeniable charisma leaps off the page to charm us, yet we also come to see her pitfalls – her fierce competitiveness, limited emotional range, and tendency to invite questionable partners into her inner circle, despite objections from her own family. The book presents a portrait of Ruth the world has not yet seen – Ruth, not as the infallible Empress of Steak, but as a human, in all her glory and flaws.
But more than a biography of two colorful characters, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is also a memoir of New Orleans – a tapestry of the language, people, food and places that have made the Crescent City one of the most unique locales in the world.
The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak will be available from UPM in October. Read more at www.gorillamanofneworleans.com