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The Black Creole Chef Who Paved the Way for Food TV
A belated celebration of Lena Richard
In 1949 — more than a decade before Julia Child’s television debut — a boisterous Creole chef put on a cook’s uniform and made history. That was the year New Orleans NBC affiliate WDSU aired the first of many episodes of “Lena Richard's New Orleans Cook Book.” Running twice a week through 1950, its host, Lena Richard, would become the first Black woman to have her own cooking television show, breaking through barriers imposed by the Jim Crow-era South, and helping a wider audience learn more about the Black roots of Creole cuisine.
Even though its run was short-lived — she died in 1950 — Richard’s life and career would have a profound impact on food media, as she led the way as a leading figure in food television while breaking down gender and racial barriers. It’s only now that her legacy has gained momentum thanks to numerous researchers and writers determined to celebrate her accomplishments.
Born in 1892 in New Roads, Louisiana, the groundbreaking chef and cookbook author spent most of her life in New Orleans. As a youth, she would cook after school with her mother and aunt, who helped her develop an appreciation for cooking. She lived and breathed cooking, working with ingredients native to New Orleans’ Creole cuisine such as fish and crustaceans; peppers, onions, and celery (the so-called holy trinity that’s the backbone of many dishes); and various breads.
Eventually, a wealthy white couple of prominence, Alice and Nugent Vairin, hired her mother and aunt at their Esplanade Avenue home, where Lena would help out in the kitchen. Over the years, the couple recognized Richard’s talent and sent her to numerous cooking schools: several in New Orleans, and the Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston, where Richard graduated in 1918 before returning to New Orleans to cook professionally.
As Richard entered the culinary workforce, she found that she was imparting Black culinary culture to white cooks and travelers.
“It was often white men and women who were writing those histories of how Creole cuisine came to be, and they really emphasized the French connection, the Spanish connection,” said the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s Ashley Rose Young. A historian in the American Food History Project at the museum, Young has spent years working to learn more about Richard’s life and impact on New Orleans cuisine. Past writers, Young said, have underplayed the role of Black women in defining New Orleans food as well as the importance of West African, Caribbean, and Latin American food cultures in shaping Creole cuisine.
Though primary accounts about Richard are somewhat limited, researchers like Young have been able to explore the life of a woman clearly committed to food and Black Creole identity.
Upon returning to New Orleans after graduating from cooking school, Richard started a catering business. Over the course of the next two decades during the 1920s and ‘30s, she chartered numerous culinary businesses and worked as a cook at the Orleans Club, an elite social organization for wealthy white women.
Richard had bigger ambitions. In 1937, she and her daughter Marie opened one of several cooking schools, teaching local African American students the art of culinary sciences, and instructing them on how to own and operate a business in a ruthlessly segregated New Orleans. She had her students test and restest these recipes; she was committed to the idea that her recipes would work.
“Lena understood that there was a broader market for her work,” said Young. “I often wonder where her career would have gone, she was so ambitious.”
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Though Richard didn’t attain national recognition like other local Black chefs such as Leah Chase of Dooky Chase (born in 1923, who was young enough to be her child), Richard helped pave the way for people like Chase to become known as today’s “Queen of Creole Cuisine.”
In her time, Richard was a respected figure in the city, impressing Black home cooks and white housewives alike. In addition to founding culinary schools, she published a collection of meticulously crafted and tested recipes, culminating in a self-published book, “Lena Richard’s Cook Book”. A compendium of more than 300 recipes, Richard captivated readers with her direct instructions and insightful perspective on various regional dishes, like shrimp fricassee a la Creole, oyster chowder, and pralines. “Lena Richard’s cookbook is different in that it really builds upon scientific base measurements,” said Young.
Her work caught the eye of publisher Houghton-Mifflin who reissued her book in 1940 with a new title, “New Orleans Cook Book.” While this edit removed Lena’s name from the title (her photo has since been added in the 1999 reissue), she was deeply attached to the book, traveling as far as New York City to promote the text.
“This was the first time that a Black woman was sharing recipes of her own creation and the creations of other Black women… in her community,” said Young. “There was an important distinction in the shift of power because Black women were so often barred from accessing the capital necessary to publish cookbooks or the connections to printers or publishers to get their works out.”
Snapshots of her career were captured in the New York Times and the Times Herald Tribune, further increasing Richard’s visibility. In addition to her publishing work, she led several restaurants, including the Bird & Bottle Inn in Garrison, New York, during a stint of living in New York just after publishing her cookbook. She also operated several restaurants in New Orleans once she returned to the city, such as Lena's Eatery, which opened in 1941, and the Gumbo House, which she founded in 1949.
As her popularity grew, doors opened, including television. From 1949 until her death in 1950, Richard used her cookbook and culinary knowledge as a foundation for her 30-minute cooking show, “New Orleans Cook Book” on WDSU. She and her assistant, Marie Matthews, became the first Black faces to grace food television, disrupting an industry that, even after Richard’s death, prioritized white faces and voices in food.
“I do think she carved out a space for Black women in New Orleans, especially in that food TV realm, and in the realm of publishing cookbooks,” said Young. “I mean, she was the one breaking down those barriers, and creating that space for other Black women to follow in her footsteps.”
Chef Dwynesha “Dee” Lavigne is doing just that. Raised in New Orleans culinary traditions, Lavigne is one of the first Black women if not the first since Lena Richard to own a cooking school in the city. Her school, Deelightful Roux School of Cooking sits in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and builds on the legacy Richard helped establish.
“It motivated me that she could do all the things that she did as a Black female,” said Lavigne. “I think about the time period that all of this was happening. In the Jim Crow South, women didn't have rights – let alone Black women – and women were not taken seriously,” said Lavigne. “I’ve got to make sure that I represent what she tried to demonstrate through her career. I want to make sure that I leave a lasting impression so hopefully, other people can learn who she was, and why she matters.”
I am grateful for Lena Richard’s legacy; it’s a gift to the American table. We owe Richard, and other Black women like her, more than a place on our bookshelves or kitchen counters. We must amplify Black women in food, disrupting the notion that food and travel belong to whiteness, and that the curiosity of Black folks can only be shared through certain channels.
I’ve learned a lot from spending so much time on assignment in New Orleans this year, particularly from chefs like Lavigne, who develop the city’s cuisine on their own terms, using their own diverse upbringing as a guide. Is New Orleans — and America – ready to give them that chance? The profound culinary knowledge that Richard contributed to our world shows it’s long overdue.