The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The roots of the celebrity chefs pitching Super Bowl recipes may surprise you

How Lena Richard, a Black woman, blazed a trail as a chef, author, entrepreneur and mentor

Chef Lena Richard, center, during her televised cooking show in the studios of WDSU. (Newcomb Archives and Nadine Robbert Vorhoff Collection, Newcomb Institute, Tulane University)

As football fans prepare to host Super Bowl parties, celebrity chefs like Padma Lakshmi, Ina Garten and Bobby Flay are dishing out their favorite game-day recipes on television, the Internet and social media. In 2022, seeing these chefs on programs like the “Today” show and “Good Morning America” or hosting their own shows on platforms like PBS and the Food Network is routine — a much-beloved part of American culture.

But like almost every aspect of American life, the rise of food television and TV chefs has an origin story that largely has been forgotten. Black Creole chef Lena Richard, one of America’s earliest TV stars, played a key role in this history. She was part of the first cohort of chefs whose cooking shows aired in the post-World War II period on local channels across the country, helping to establish the genre of food television. All the while, she blazed a path for Black chefs and worked to train them and boost their careers.

Richard was born in 1892 and grew up in a working-class family in New Orleans. Like her mother, she worked in domestic service as a young adult. Looking to hone her culinary skills, she attended several cooking schools in New Orleans thanks to the sponsorship of her White employer. This support gained Richard access to these professional programs despite Jim Crow segregation.

Hungry to advance her career, she set off in 1918 for the Fannie Farmer cooking school in Boston, the top program for women at the time. Richard’s degree solidified her status as a trained culinary professional.

To build a culinary empire in Jim Crow New Orleans as a Black woman, Richard had to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds tied to racism and sexism. Across the country, very few Black women were able to attend culinary school — let alone access the capital necessary to launch their own food businesses after graduating.

White writers had long portrayed the cooking talents of Black women as “innate” or “magical,” obscuring the years of training they underwent through informal apprenticeships with other Black women. The color line also deprived Black women of opportunities to publish and speak publicly about that knowledge. Instead, White authors regularly appropriated Black women’s recipes and expertise, and their narratives diminished the central role of Black women in the creation of regional and American food cultures.

Yet, importantly, even this discriminatory food culture recognized that Black women possessed culinary skill. This acknowledgment gave Richard a chance to surmount the barriers imposed by the color line.

Richard’s professional credentials and business acumen, paired with her connections to influential advocates and funders, enabled her to rise further than most Black women and become a leading authority on Creole cuisine; her many successes included the release of “Lena Richard’s Cook Book” in 1939, which made her the first Black author to publish a cookbook on Creole cuisine.

She pulled this off at a pivotal moment in New Orleans food history. In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans saw the city as a major center of fine dining. White elites from across the country flocked to dine at renowned restaurants like Antoine’s and Galatoire’s. For Richard to rise to prominence in the city’s food scene — so often dominated by White figures — at this time made her a nationally important figure.

Over the course of her career, Richard owned and operated numerous eateries and catering businesses, founded a cooking school for Black New Orleanians, self-published “Lena Richard’s Cook Book” and then republished it for a national audience through Houghton Mifflin, headed several restaurant kitchens along the Eastern Seaboard, ran an international frozen food business that shipped her small-batch Creole and Southern specialties across North and South America, and opened one of the only Black-owned restaurants in New Orleans.

Richard also looked to create educational and professional opportunities for Black youths. In 1937, she opened her cooking school “to teach men and women the art of food preparation and serving … for any occasion.” She also hoped to position her students to demand higher wages. The skills they learned under her tutelage — including how to navigate and advocate for oneself in a racially biased and sexist food service industry — enabled them to build better lives for themselves. One student, Martha Myles, for example, launched her own catering business in 1947.

On Oct. 20, 1949, Richard made history again when she became the first Black woman to host her own self-titled cooking program, “Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book,” on the city’s first TV station, WDSU, which had launched less than a year earlier. Local newspapers covered the show’s premiere, acknowledging Richard’s decades-long career in the food industry and her reputation, both in and outside of New Orleans, as “one of the nation’s top culinary experts.”

That one of the earliest and most-beloved programs on WDSU was a cooking show is unsurprising given the city’s long-lasting love affair with its local cuisine. Richard’s 30-minute program hit a sweet spot, providing viewers with precise and approachable recipes that reflected their city’s unique Creole culture.

Twice a week, Richard guided TV audiences — many of them middle- and upper-class White women who could afford to purchase a TV — through classic Creole recipes from her 1940 cookbook, New Orleans Cook Book.” Ruth Zatarain, who at the time was recently married and learning how to cook, took careful notes during Richard’s program. Zatarain recalled that Richard “cooked the kind of food that New Orleanians were used to eating. […] Good basic red beans, meatballs and red gravy, and stews, gumbos, that kind of food.” More than 60 years later, Zatarain described to me Richard’s ability to connect with her audiences: “When she was talking to you, it was like you were talking to her in her kitchen.” Richard’s program ran until her sudden and untimely death in November 1950, around age 58.

Richard remained influential even after her death. Marie Matthews, who worked as her television sous chef, built a 42-year career at WDSU, earning induction into the New Orleans media hall of fame.

Initially after her passing, Richard was well remembered by those who grew up eating her food or who saw her on TV, like Virginia McIlhenny, who told me in an interview, “Everybody knew about her.” But as these fans grew older and many passed away, memories of Richard began to fade — even in the New Orleans region.

Nationally, Richard's story disappeared because a majority of archives and libraries, focused on preserving the history of White Americans, men in particular, did not see historic value in the life, labor, love and activism of Black women, especially those working with food.

But as these errors become evident in the 21st century, Richard’s story is making a comeback. Recently, her personal copies of her cookbooks — passed down to her daughter and then her granddaughter — became part of the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (where I’m a historian). And her story is told in the museum’s “American Enterprise” exhibition, in a special display focusing on female entrepreneurs.

We’re starting to see Richard as the trailblazer she was. From her business endeavors and role in early food media to her community advocacy, she left an indelible mark — not only on New Orleans, but the country.

When we watch Andrew Zimmern and Tim Love show us their favorite recipes for game-day parties, they are building on the legacy that Richard helped create.

Today, there are still too few Black chefs on TV, but key figures in food have fought their way to the top, including Marcus Samuelsson, Carla Hall and Darnell Ferguson. There are also crucial figures in food media such as Toni Tipton-Martin, the 2021 recipient of the Julia Child Award and the editor in chief of Cook’s Country, who are actively creating space for people of color to share their expertise. As food media continues to embrace inclusion, more opportunities will arise for mentorship and community outreach. Those efforts echo the advocacy work that Richard dedicated so much of herself to and reflect her mission to create a better future for the next generation of Black culinary professionals.