Culinary History Month

Lena Richard


Lena Richard may be the 20th century’s least celebrated celebrity chef.

In the late 1930s, she translated her knowledge of cooking into an empire that included restaurant ownership, cookbook publishing and food manufacturing. Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, has placed Richard’s accomplishments in the realm of Martha Stewart. And yet, this “great cook” and “creator of joy,” who appeared on a television cooking show 20 years before food TV made Julia Child a household name, is most often remembered as the daughter of an African American household worker — if she is remembered at all.

It is true that Richard learned to cook while helping her mother, a domestic servant, but her legacy of extraordinary Creole cuisine also makes a case for educated, highly skilled African American cooks who embraced their ethnic and regional identity by crafting marvelous dishes and successful food businesses.

Born Lena Paul in New Roads, Louisiana, in 1892, Richard showed an interest in cooking that developed into a full-blown talent in the kitchen of the home of Alice Nugent Vairin’s Esplanade Avenue home. Vairin paid the teenager a small salary to encourage her creativity. Then, to refine the budding cook’s skills, Vairin arranged for young Richard to attend cooking school, first in New Orleans, then in Boston at the renowned Fannie Farmer’s cooking school. It was here that Richard discovered the economic power of cookbooks and the kinship between her cultural heritage, scientific cooking and self-sufficiency.

Richard returned to this wisdom again and again over the years, co-mingling African-inspired dishes such as codfish balls, baked plantains and banana fritters with the elegant — creamed seafood in baked puff pastry shells, grillades and Charlotte Russe.  After marrying Percival Richard, she operated a catering business out of her home, “formulating and collecting recipes” for dishes she had prepared for luncheons, dinners, parties, teas and banquets. She opened several restaurants where young entrepreneurs learned restaurant management and business skills. She even set an integrated table at Lena’s Eatery on LaSalle Street, where black and white diners sat side-by-side during Jim Crow segregation, enjoying pork chops, fried chicken, potato salad, stuffed crab, stuffed peppers, gumbo, and red beans and rice. Richard hosted cooking demos for white New Orleans socialites at the Bethlehem Temple in the French Quarter and taught classes three nights a week in the cooking school she operated with her daughter Marie, according to research collected by Louisiana State Museum historian Karen Trahan Leathem.

In 1939, Lena Richard self-published Lena Richard’s Cook Book — an artful collection of recipes for exquisite New Orleans food such as shrimp bisque, timbales and ground artichoke mousse — which she also intended as a tool to uplift her race. At the urging of culinary experts James Beard and Clementine Paddleford, Houghton Mifflin re-issued the book a year later with a new title, the New Orleans Cook Book.

By the 1940s, word of Richard’s reputation for excellent Creole specialties spread beyond the Crescent City, delighting upper-class and political elites from New York to Virginia. She achieved head chef status at The Bird & Bottle Inn in Garrison, New York. At the Travis House, a popular restaurant for tourists in Colonial Williamsburg, her scalloped oysters, shrimp Creole and stuffed eggplant acquainted guests with a taste of her bayou home. She entertained the British High Command in Washington, D.C., and the wife and daughter of Winston Churchill.

When she returned to New Orleans in the 1940s Richard hosted a weekly cooking show on local station WDSU, opened another restaurant, the Gumbo House, and sold a line of frozen food to hungry Louisiana ex-pats from coast to coast.   

By the time of her untimely death in 1950, Richard’s confident style had completely overshadowed distorted representations of black female cooks. She employed and educated women, taught self-reliance, encouraged racial tolerance and elevated African American cooking to a sophisticated art — and it all started when she began cooking in another woman’s kitchen.