The First Ever Celeb Chef Dates Back To 1940—15 Years Before Julia Child
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On December 18, 1948, WDSU-TV in New Orleans went live for the first time. Less than a year later, Lena Richard stepped onto a family-style kitchen set to film the first episode of Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book—a first-of-its-kind cooking show on which she demonstrated how to prepare recipes from her own cookbook. First self-published in 1939 as Lena Richard’s Cook Book and a year later, in 1940, by Houghton Mifflin, later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as New Orleans Cookbook, this was considered the first Creole cookbook by a person of color.
Early Promise Realized: A Groundbreaker Grows
Lena Richard was a Black female chef. The fact of her appearance on this relatively new technology, in the Jim Crow-era South, showing an audience of largely white middle- and upper-class women how to prepare New Orleans classics such as Grillades a la Creole and Daube Glacéx is a testament to Richard’s skill, hard work, and training. This was nearly 15 years before Julia Child first appeared on WGBH in Boston to demonstrate how to make a proper omelette and promote her new cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The show became so popular the station began airing it twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for almost a full year, until Richard’s untimely death in November of 1950 at the age of 58.
Like many Black women of the era, Richard began her working life at the age of 14 as a domestic, assisting her mother and aunt at the home of the Vairins, a wealthy white New Orleans family. Alice Vairin, the matron of the family, noticed Richard’s interest in and proclivity for cooking and set aside one day a week for her to experiment with unique dishes. After eating one of the budding chef ’s dinners, Vairin hired her as a full-time cook and increased her pay. She also sent her to cooking school—first in New Orleans and later to Boston’s prestigious Fannie Farmer cooking school, where permission had to be sought by the school from every white woman in her class to allow Richard to study with them.
She graduated from the eight-week course in 1918, with respect and admiration from her classmates for her culinary dexterity and much-expressed enthusiasm for her Creole specialties. “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.” The result was the 300-recipe collection that became Lena Richard’s Cook Book.
The experience also propelled her to continue growing her culinary career. “When I got way up there,” she recalled later in a newspaper interview, “I found out in a hurry they can’t teach me much more than I know. I learned things about new desserts and salads. But 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 honest truth.”
Paying It Forward: A School for Black Chefs
In 1937, Richard opened a cooking school specifically to train Black students in the culinary and hospitality skills that were necessary for employment in the Jim Crow South.
She wanted her school, she said, “to teach men and women the art of food preparation and serving in order that they would be capable of food preparation and serving food for any occasion and also that they might be in a position to demand higher wages.”
After the release of her cookbook, the Bird and Bottle Inn in Garrison, New York, persuaded her to take a position as head chef. She returned to New Orleans in 1941 and opened Lena’s Eatery—“The Most Talked of Place in the South.” In 1943, she headed north again to take the top position at Travis House at Colonial Williamsburg, where she remained for about two years before returning to New Orleans. Diners raved about her cooking in notebooks of reviews. They waxed particularly rapturously about her Scalloped Oysters. “To be scalloped by Lena—the oyster’s prayer,” one patron wrote. Winston Churchill’s wife and daughter dined there and went to the kitchen to trade autographs with Richard.
After her time at Travis House, she returned to New Orleans and founded a frozen food company. Then in 1949, she founded Lena Richard’s Gumbo House, where Black New Orleanians and white New Orleanians dined side by side, defying segregation laws.
Becoming Visible: Modeling Access, Mentoring for the Future
Richard accomplished many things in her life, among them shedding light on the truth behind New Orleans’ reputation as a culinary phenomenon. As historian Ashley Rose Young wrote in a 2012 post about Richard on her blog, "Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV," “Too often in the mid-twentieth century, the identities of the top chefs of New Orleans’ world-renowned restaurants remained anonymous. They were the creative genius hidden behind the swinging doors of their kitchens. Often, those men and women were African-Americans.”
Lena Richard stepped out from behind the kitchen doors onto the set of a television show and beyond. She helped expand the influence of Creole cuisine and forged a path for later generations of young Black chefs with talent, skill, and singular visions.
From Smithsonian American Table by Lisa Kingsley in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. Copyright © 2023 by Smithsonian Institution. Reprinted by permission of Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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