By last year, Chef Dwynesha “Dee” Lavigne, a lifelong cook, was already a well-established culinary presence in New Orleans. She had worked in the industry for years, owned a pastry business and hosted a periodic cooking segment on WWL-TV.
Still, she wanted a more permanent place to honor and pass along the city’s culinary traditions, just as a personal hero of hers, Chef Lena Richard, did decades earlier. In the late 1930s, before she became famous as the first Black woman to host a TV cooking show — “Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cook Book,” which aired on WDSU-TV from 1949 to 1950 — Richard operated her own culinary school in the city.
More than 80 years later, Lavigne followed in Richard’s footsteps, opening the Deelightful Roux School of Cooking inside the Southern Food and Beverage Museum — the city’s only cooking school owned by a Black woman — in early 2022.
Lavigne was one of the many women honored on Friday, March 17, at the opening party for the exhibit “Entrepreneurial Pursuits of Women in New Orleans, Then and Now.” The exhibit by the Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans is at the historic Gallier House (1132 Royal St.) and runs through Labor Day.
“I’m a mother of two. My oldest son has autism, and so I’ve always been an advocate for him. Sometimes the regular nine to five jobs do not work with your schedule, which kind of helped push me to be an entrepreneur,” Lavigne said in an interview at the party, where she stood near a display panel about Richard.
Infusing love into her Cajun and Creole dishes, Lavigne created a space where young, black aspiring culinary artists can be recognized.
Once she started teaching cooking, she realized the impact she could have in others’ lives. “ It gives me a platform to show young girls in New Orleans that they could be me too,” she said.
Acknowledging women as instrumental in shaping our culture, the exhibit focuses on female entrepreneurs who overcame racial, political or social obstacles to build successful businesses.
“One of the things that I think is really important is there’s so much history that has been erased and in that it makes each generation feel like something has never been done and they’re the first one to do it,” said Tessa Jagger, executive director at Hermann-Grima & Gallier Historic Houses.
“We’re hoping people feel themselves reflected in that history and feel like they can continue to move forward in building on these incredible stories.”
With vendors selling art inspired by the historical architecture of New Orleans, hand-crafted beaded jewelry to hand-made clothing, the evening captured the essence of what it means for women to be self-starters.
For Megan Jewel, a local artist and art teacher, the path to entrepreneurship was following her creative passions. Jewel makes and sells cut paper art inspired by her daily walks in New Orleans. She helped foster curiosity and creativity for children of all ages during the fall when she worked at the Louisiana Children’s Museum, while also hosting workshops and classes developing craft experiences for local organizations, schools and businesses in the city.
“My work is usually very colorful, kind of whimsical and just trying to bring a little bit of joy and positivity,” Jewel said.
Sitting at her booth, Tonitralaschrondra “Tee” Lee sells her handcrafted gemstone jewelry through her business The Mad Bohemian. With each piece of jewelry, she said, an affirmation is shared to help inspire self-growth in her customers. Coming from a family of women entrepreneurs– her mother has a sewing business and her cousins are hairstylists —Lee thought she should start her own business as well.
“I mean I eat, sleep and breathe this business,” Lee said. “ I don’t want to work for anyone ever again, I just want to wake up, meet people, inspire people and just keep doing me,” she said.
The Woman’s Exchange of New Orleans, which manages the Hermann-Grima & Gallier Historic Houses, is one of the oldest women’s nonprofits in the South, and exhibit curator Katy Burlison said it was important for the group to support and highlight women entrepreneurs in different fields. Burlison recalled a few words from her interviews with each of the honorees.
“One thing that they kept saying was resilience and community,” she said. “They saw a need, they went and addressed it, and then they started a business,” she said.
The inclusion of contemporary business owners at the event — representing the “Now” in the title’s “Then and Now” — shows how women continue on the legacy of those who came before, Lavigne said.
“I want to make sure that I am constantly face forward, that I am present, so that when people look at me, they are going to know who I am, what I’ve done and where I’m going,” Lavigne said.
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