Chef Dee Lavigne learned to cook at the age of seven. After a brief career in accountancy, she decided to ditch the world of spreadsheets and focus on her true passion: food. Now she runs the first African American-owned cooking school New Orleans has seen in over 80 years, whipping up Cajun and Creole classics for hungry travellers.
If you step inside New Orleans’ Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in the historic Central City, you might catch a whiff of something spicy and delicious coming from the kitchens.
This building, once the home of the old Dryades Market, is also the headquarters of Deelightful Roux – New Orleans’ first African American-owned cooking school in over 80 years. The head chef is a lady known simply as ‘Chef Dee’. Full name: Dwynesha Lavigne.
“I originally got a job at the museum during COVID,” Dwynesha says. “I enlisted other chefs to come give live demos and introduce their products to help grow their customer base. I started teaching cooking classes – but I was following the museum’s rules, and I found myself thinking, ‘I could change this. I could do it better.’ So one day I asked them if they’d like to make history with me.”
Dwynesha pitched something rather radical to SoFAB: she would run cooking classes for the museum, helping travellers, visitors and locals master the Southern food and Creole flavors of her hometown – but she wanted to own the school. It would be hers, and hers alone.
“It was something really lacking in this field, and the industry,” Dwynesha says. “Not just for minority women, like me, but for women in general. So, I said, ‘Listen, I want this to be mine. I want to own this.’ And they agreed. I became the first African American to own a cooking school in New Orleans in over 80 years.”
Not since the trailblazing Lena Richard in 1949 – more than a decade before Julia Child’s television debut – had a Black woman owned a cooking school in the city. Now there was another. “It’s interesting when you think about the food culture in New Orleans,” Dwynesha reflects. “Although we have this massive African-American-Creole influence, we don’t really have a lot of representation and ownership. That was one of the things I wanted to change.”
Dwynesha decided to hero the dishes she grew up with, here in New Orleans’ 9th ward, way out on the easternmost downriver section of the city. “I started cooking when I was seven,” she says. “Oddly enough I have seven siblings. I’m one of six girls. So I mostly just watched. I sat back and watched a lot. And during that time, I’d ask questions, but never cook anything. Eventually I said to mom, ‘I want to try it’, and she said, ‘Okay, just don’t burn the house down’. The rest is history.”
While studying accounting at The University of New Orleans, she realised that the accounting world of numbers wasn’t for her. She’d always enjoyed cooking, but never tried it in any professional capacity. She decided to enroll at a community college, and soon found herself at the Culinary Institute of America, the fabled CIA in New York – basically the Harvard of cooking schools. She graduated in 2003 and never looked back.
In 2016, after working for Whole Foods Markets managing their bakery department, Dwynesha launched her own business: Deelightful Cupcakes. Using the Southern Food and Beverage Museum as her commissary kitchen she grew a profitable New Orleans enterprise, catering to events and running sugar-loaded cupcake deliveries. That is, until COVID came along. “COVID really broke the business,” she admits. “Everyone was at home. There were no office parties or social events. I knew I had to figure something out.”
Wisely, she leaned into her existing relationship with SoFAB, a not-for-profit educational organisation, dedicated to preserving the unique food culture of New Orleans. And that’s where you’ll find her today, cooking up huge pots of jambalaya, or making smothered okra and banana foster with visitors, locals and Intrepid travellers.
The menu is mostly Cajun and Creole – the food of Dwynesha’s childhood – with plenty of Southern classics on the menu. Gumbo with dark roux, andouille sausage and chicken. Crusty French bread with homemade butter. Smothered okra and tomatoes. And big jugs of Luzianne iced tea to wash it all down, naturally.
“It feels surreal,” Dwynesha admits. “It still doesn’t feel like work. I want people to know that cooking is fun, and when you do it with more people, it gets even better. It’s not a serious thing. Food is made for people to eat and survive. It brings people together, and I think people feel that every single time they come to my class.”