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The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography) Hardcover – September 2, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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 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

“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

“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

From the Inside Flap

The Big Easy family saga of an eccentric father, a workaholic mother, and the birth of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House empire

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Product Details

  • Series: Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi; First Edition edition (September 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1617030821
  • ISBN-13: 978-1617030826
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #766,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The Ruth's Chris Steakhouse chain has been celebrated in rap songs and is famous around the United States for the massive entrees including steaks rich with butter. With over 100 restaurants around the country, Ruth's Chris is the biggest luxury steak company in the U.S. The story of the legendary founder Ruth Fertel is one best told by her son, Randy, whose memoir is equal parts bitter and sweet.

The legend of Ruth's Chris is a pure Louisiana story full of the rich tragicomedy that runs deep in New Orleans. It's not just a restaurant story, it's also a horse story, Ruth Fertel also had her thoroughbred trainer's license and she and her husband started off in the horse business. Randy Fertel didn't just have one larger-than-life parental unit. His father Rodney Fertel later became famous for running for mayor of New Orleans in a gorilla suit, the gorilla man in the title.

An objective biographer might have made better sense of organizing the narrative and placing Ruth Fertel's contribution to the restaurant world in better context but the fact that this is a son's memoir carries its own power. Fertel is a yarn spinner and he captures New Orleans in vivid sensory detail as he tells the story of a family full of distinctive and often warring personalities. This adds both a richness of detail as well as a certain discomfort for the reader, Fertel's details are often deeply personal, bearing the mark of a difficult and lonely childhood.

For food and business lovers the book really gets hopping in the last third when Fertel unpacks a bit of the Ruth's Chris magic from the sizzling steaks to the perils of expansion.
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Format: Hardcover
Received this book as a Christmas gift from my daughter. She is a New Orleanian, though born and reared in Texas. Seldom have I been given such a gift. The daughter went to Tulane and took Randy's "Vietnam" class. He made sure she tried Uglesich's, and was a friend who introduced her and her boss to the best Chinese Restaurant ever in New York City (well after Katrina). We ate there as a family the last summer the Yankees were to play in "the House that Ruth built." And, it really was that good.

My expectations of this publication were not "grand" though I had interest in the Ruth's Chris story, I've spent my life in the Hospitality industry and the wife and I were privileged to dine at their Broad Street location the night the Saints clinched their first playoff berth in 1987. Magic can not begin to describe that evening or the meal.

This memoir has many layers, some good, some okay, some of interest to someone enamored with The City and its history, some a bit boring to be frank. But; as a matter of personal experience, one of singular importance to this reviewer. Serendipity is sometimes viewed as "a `happy accident' or `pleasant surprise'; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it." Such is my case. While alluding to various childhood experiences outside the norm throughout the first four-fifths of this story, Mr. Fertel closes with a very personal description of an upbringing hardly dissimilar from my own. Not so much in regard to business successes and failures but rather in parental relationships, and their effect on the survivors. The parallels seemed almost uncanny and upon reaching that point I couldn't put the book down. He even provided some additional closure to my own relationships.

So, why only three stars?
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Format: Hardcover
New Orleans is a feast that can not be movable--or even conceivable--anywhere than where it is and what it is: America as it riffs off the southern edge of the continent, twisting through the rich effluvium of the Mississippi delta: Cajun, French, African, Eastern European, Vietnamese, more, too many streams to name, an estuarine tangle of funky, soul-wrenching music and exquisite food, degrading corruption and daring ambition, cocky arrogance and big-hearted generosity, vehement intolerance and joyous diversity. This is a story of New Orleans. This is a memoir about another unhappy family made interesting, as Tolstoy knew, by their unhappiness. This is a story about complicated parents who live larger-than-life lives, one of whom fails from a great height and learns little and one of whom succeeds to a great height and learns little more than how to achieve such a scaling. This is a story of the damage both do to their children. This is a story of how damage can weaken or strengthen its victims. This is a story of children who survive and remain damaged or who learn and incorporate that learning into their own lives. This is, in another words, an old story. But all the best stories are, and what brings Randy Fertel's beautifully written book beyond a mere personal accounting and into the level of reflective American literature is his understanding--and the way his writing allows us to understand--how his parents' lives illuminate who we are: at least that portion of ourselves defined by the city of New Orleans.Read more ›
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