Lena Richard, a revered African-American chef, broke racial and economic barriers to build a culinary empire in New Orleans
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the show was one of the earliest offerings on WDSU-TV and became so popular, she started airing it twice a week.
Although the program reportedly welcomed a racially mixed audience, the majority were white middle- and upper-class women, who leaned on Richard’s culinary expertise for all things Creole. She was one of New Orleans’ finest chefs.
At a time when racial stereotypes engulfed the food industry right in the heart of the Jim Crow South, Lena Richard who seems to be largely forgotten today was able to reshape the public understanding of New Orleans’ cuisine by showcasing and celebrating the black roots of Creole cooking.
Richard did not only create a career out of common employment for women of colour, but she also used her experiences as a way to change her African American community. “She [Richard] stepped out on the water when there was no guarantee it would hold her up,” said Jessica B. Harris, a food historian and author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America.
She was a trained chef, acclaimed cookbook author, restaurant and catering business owner, frozen food entrepreneur, TV host and cooking school teacher, who helped improve the livelihoods of current and future African Americans in her community.
Richard owned and operated catering businesses, eateries, a fine-dining restaurant, a cooking school, and an international frozen food business in the racially segregated South.
Born in New Roads, Louisiana, in 1892, Richard began her culinary career at the age of 14, assisting her mother and aunt as a part-time domestic worker for the Vairins, a prominent New Orleans family.
Young Richard was fascinated by the wealthy family’s kitchen. When the matron of the family, Alice Vairin noticed her natural talent and curiosity for cooking, she set aside a day each week for Richard to experiment with unique dishes.
Eventually, after eating one of the teenager’s prepared dinners, Vairin hired the young cook full-time and increased her pay. Vairin then signed Richard up for local cooking school classes.
She also sent her to Boston’s prestigious Fannie Farmer cooking school for eight weeks. “In 1918 she was likely the only woman of colour in the program,” said Ashley Rose Young, a historian and curator at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, who has done extensive research into the life and legacy of the New Orleans chef.
“It’s not that the [Fannie Farmer] cooking school wouldn’t admit women of colour,” Young noted. “But if they did, they first sought permission from every single white woman in that class.”
“When I got ‘way up there, I found out in a hurry they can’t teach me much more than I know,” she later recalled in an interview. “When it comes to cooking meats, stews, soups, sauces and such dishes we Southern cooks have Northern cooks beat by a mile. That’s not big talk; that’s the honest truth.”
Throughout the eight-week course, her white classmates sought her advice on local Southern classics. “I cooked a couple of my dishes like Creole gumbo and my chicken vol-au-vent, and they go crazy, almost trying to copy down what I say,” Richard said.
“I think maybe I’m pretty good, so someday I’d write it down myself.” Her classmates praised her and that inspired her Creole recipes. She realized her recipe would be useful to other local New Orleans chefs and to those unfamiliar with the cuisine.
In 1939, she self-published the first version of her more than 300-recipe collection titled Lena Richard’s Cook Book. A New York Herald Tribune food writer Clementine Paddleford and the renowned food critic James Beard soon endorsed Richard’s work and publisher Houghton Mifflin got interested in her.
The following year, the publishing company formally issued Richard’s collection under the title New Orleans Cook Book, which is now regarded as the first Creole cookbook written by an African American.
The preface of Richard’s cookbook read: “to teach men and women the art of food preparation and serving in order that they would become capable of preparing and serving food for any occasion and also that they might be in a position to demand higher wages”.
Richard’s clear writing and accessible recipes transcended the New Orleans food scene. The collection became a bestseller. “Her seasonings were simple, yet impeccably balanced,” Young stated. “It allowed the subtle flavours of the fresh seafood to sing out and harmonize with one another.”
According to Young, Richard dedicated herself to writing down and recording generations of African American cooking traditions in New Orleans.
In a bid to educate young African Americans with the culinary and hospitality skills needed for employment in the Jim Crow South, in 1937 Richard opened her cooking school. The next year, she opened a frozen food company.
Richard then left for New York to assume the role as head chef of the Bird and Bottle Inn. She soon returned to New Orleans and opened her own New Orleans-style restaurant called Lena’s Eatery in 1941.
Again she left to Colonial Williamsburg to take on the position of head chef at the Travis House, where Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine and their daughter Mary reportedly went back to her kitchen to exchange autographs.
The restaurant was situated in one of the city’s African American neighbourhoods and across from the Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Uptown New Orleans. Her daughter Marie Rhodes recalls how after the parish’s 11 a.m. mass, churchgoers arrived to chat, drink coffee and enjoy the Sunday menu of Richard.
“She’s supporting the community in large part by opening doors to people. The cooking school wasn’t just to make money, it was to pass forward what Mrs Vairin had done for her and to provide accessible training in her area,” remarked Paula Rhodes, Richard’s granddaughter.