Lena Richard, about 1892-1950
Lena Richard, an African American chef and entrepreneur, built a dynamic culinary career in the segregated South. She owned and operated catering businesses, eateries, a fine-dining restaurant, a cooking school, and an international frozen food business despite experiencing many class-, race-, and gender-based inequalities. Houghton Mifflin published Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book in 1940, which launched her career as a pioneer in food TV.
As a young woman, Richard worked in domestic service for a wealthy White family. Her exceptional aptitude in the kitchen led her to pursue professional training at Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery in Boston. She was likely the only woman of color in her class and probably had to dine separately from other students because of her race. After graduating in 1918, Richard returned to New Orleans where she launched her own catering and restaurant businesses. She used this copper chafing dish for catering events.
Having built her reputation as a chef, Richard shared her life’s work in a self-published cookbook, Lena Richard’s Cook Book, in 1939. Editors at Houghton Mifflin recognized the book’s value and published an edition for a national readership in 1940 under a different title, New Orleans Cook Book. Using that platform, Richard shared with readers the mission of her recently opened cooking school: to better the lives of young African American food service industry workers.
Richard had more options than most Black women chefs in the Jim Crow era. Restaurants on the East Coast recruited her as head chef of their fine-dining establishments. Taking lessons from those experiences, in 1949 she opened the Gumbo House in New Orleans, one of few black-owned fine-dining restaurants. Richard carved out a unique space for herself in the local restaurant scene, attracting both White and Black clientele even during segregation.
In 1949 Richard broke new barriers as one of America’s early television chefs, and one of the first African Americans on TV. Her cooking program placed the culinary ingenuity of women, often hidden behind the kitchen door, front and center. The show was so popular that it aired twice weekly. Richard passed away in 1950 just as her career was taking off in food television.