Lena Richard was born in New Roads, Louisiana on September 11, 1892. She would go on to become known as an accomplished chef, cookbook author, restaurateur, frozen food entrepreneur, and television host. She triumphantly broke racial barriers in the midst of the Jim Crow era South.
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. Alice Vairin noticed the young girl’s interest and natural talent in the kitchen, and decided that one day a week, Lena could have control of the kitchen in order to learn, practice, and experiment with her skills and unique dishes. Lena’s meals were so delicious that Mrs. Vairin hired her as the full time cook, and gave her a pay raise.
The Vairins eventually sent Richard to the Fannie Farmer Cooking School in Boston, in 1918, to refine her skills. However, during the 8 week program, Lena quickly realized she didn’t have much to learn. Her white classmates regularly turned to her for advice, particularly when it came to classic southern dishes.
Upon returning to New Orleans, Richard began her own catering business, and opened several eateries. By 1937, she had opened a cooking school in New Orleans for Black students. She wanted to help others obtain skills to help them increase their potential for higher pay. In 1939, she self published the first version of her cookbook, entitled Lena Richard’s Cook Book. It contained more than 300 recipes! A year later Houghton Mifflin officially published it as New Orleans Cook Book. It was the first published creole cookbook written by an African American.
Over the next decade she went back and forth between serving as a head chef at Northern restaurants for the upper class, and opening her own restaurants in New Orleans. In 1945 she decided to begin her own frozen food business. Richard created fully cooked pre-packaged meals that could be frozen and shipped across the United States. There was no barrier she could not cross. She had her own cooking show “Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book” that aired twice a week on New Orleans’ first television station WDSU, where she and her assistant would walk viewers through recipes in her cookbook.
Lena Richard died November 27, 1950, at the age of 58. In 2020, Richard was one of eight women featured in “The Only One in the Room” display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, to honor all of her accomplishments.
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