The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak
Randy Fertel
University Press of Mississippi, September 2011

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is the story of two larger-than-life characters and the son whom 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. When Fertel ran for mayor of New Orleans on a single campaign promise-buying a pair of gorillas for the zoo-he garnered a paltry 308 votes. Then he purchased the gorillas anyway!

These colorful figures yoked together two worlds not often connected-lazy rice farms in the bayous and swinging urban streets where ethnicities jazzily collided. A trip downriver to the hamlet of Happy Jack focuses on its French-Alsatian roots, bountiful tables and self-reliant lifestyle that inspired a restaurant legend. The story also offers a close-up of life in the Old Jewish Quarter on Rampart Street-and how it intersected with the denizens of “Back a’ Town,” just a few blocks away, who brought jazz from New Orleans to the world.

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is a New Orleans story, featuring the distinctive characters, color, food and history of that city-before Hurricane Katrina and after. But it also is the universal story of family and the full magnitude of outsize follies leavened with equal measures of humor, rage and rue.

About the Author

Randy Fertel, a writer based in New York and New Orleans, is president of both the Fertel Foundation and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he received a student-voted teaching award, and specializes in the literature of the Vietnam War. He has taught English at Harvard, Tulane University, LeMoyne College, the New School for Social Research, and the University of New Orleans. Fertel is a prolific and popular essayist with recent items in Smithsonian, Gastronomica, Gilt Taste, Creative Nonfiction, Tikkun, New Orleans Magazine and Kenyon Review, which published his award-winning essay on Hurricane Katrina.

A former busboy, restaurant manager and Director of Marketing for Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Fertel remembers interrupting high school homework to make emergency French bread runs. A lover of fine wines, fine food and great cars, he has long dined out on the stories that make up The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.

As president of the Fertel Foundation, Fertel weaves together people and ideas, and fosters projects related to the arts and education. The Foundation is especially interested in initiatives from which new communities and new insights may emerge, and those that challenge entrenched communities of power.

He is also president of The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, which is devoted exclusively to education in Louisiana, providing scholarships and support to high-achieving, economically deprived students in the New Orleans region. The year after the storm, The Ruth U. Fertel Foundation pledged over one million dollars in grants to New Orleans schools and educational resources.