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A black and white bust photo of Edna Lewis. She is sitting on a chair facing the left side of the photo. Her hand rests on her collar bone and she is wearing a black shirt, a bangle on her arm, and intricately designed earrings. Her hair is pulled back into a low bun.

Edna Lewis in New York in 1971. Credit John T. Hill

“One of the greatest pleasures of my life has been that I have never stopped learning about Good Cooking and Good Food.”

Edna Lewis is a well-renowned African American chef and cookbook author who reformed culinary arts and educated the American public to appreciate southern meals and incorporate them into American homes. Lewis was born in 1916 in Freetown, Orange County, Virginia. She lived with her family in a community of emancipated slaves that her grandfather helped to create. Enda’s grandfather was granted a farm in Freetown, and she participated in food production from an early age along with her seven other siblings. Lewis grew a love for cooking and found she treasured the joy and community created around food. Once her father passed away, she moved to New York City at age sixteen. She jumped around doing many jobs, including being a laundress and a seamstress. As a seamstress, Lewis made dresses for celebrities including Dorcas Avedon and Marilyn Monroe. Once she married her husband Steve Kingston, her dream to become a chef became a reality.

Lewis opened and became the head chef of Café Nicholson in 1949, located on the East Side of Manhattan. The French-inspired restaurant became a highlight area for artists and celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Greta Garbo, Salvador Dali, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Lewis would cook her most beloved southern dishes for her customers at this restaurant. After three years, she left Café Nicholson but remained an active business partner. She then became a lecturer for the American Museum of Natural History and built a brand for herself as a chef and private caterer. Throughout the rest of her life, Lewis would write four cookbooks in hopes of bringing fresh and seasonal ingredients to American homes. She first wrote The Edna Lewis Cookbook in 1972. With the help of Judith Jones, she published another cookbook that was full of childhood stories, southern cultural traditions, and African American heritage titled The Taste of Country Cooking in 1976. This cookbook sparked a new wave of cookbooks released to celebrate the diversity of southern cuisine. Years later, Lewis published her third cookbook titled In Pursuit of Flavor in 1988.

After most of her career was spent cooking in the South, Lewis returned to New York City at the age of 72 to become a chef at the Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner. In the early 1990s, Lewis moved to Georgia and retired from restaurants. She received countless awards and honors including: “Who’s Who in American Cooking,” by Cook’s Magazine, an honorary Ph.D. in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University in 1996, and the James Beard Living Legend Award in 1999. She was named “Grande Dame” by Les Dames d’Escoffier International in 1999. Lewis became a mentor and companion to Scoot Peakcock, a southern cook who was the head chef at the Georgia governor’s mansion. Together, they wrote Lewis’s last cookbook The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks in 2003. Unfortunately, Edna Lewis then passed away from cancer in 2006 at the age of 89.

Edna Lewis’s gracious contributions to the culinary arts helped shed light on beautiful African American traditions and cuisine in a 20th-century American society that still lived in prejudice against different races. Her donation of knowledge about food made a huge impact on women’s importance in history, and people continue to share her knowledge of hearty Southern meals, continuing her important legacy.