Cover photo courtesy Chanelle Harris
Chef Dee Lavigne is teaching her Deelightful Roux School of Cooking at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. In this hands-on class, Lavigne guides students through a tour of Southern cuisine.
Deelightful Roux School of Cooking is the only African American-owned cooking school taught by a New Orleans native, and her class is a guide to New Orleans’ food culture.
The beginnings of Deelightful Roux
The middle of eight children, Lavigne started cooking when she was seven. Cooking allowed her to express herself creatively, however, it wasn’t her first career choice.
“I wanted to be an accountant, so I went to the University of New Orleans to study accounting,” Lavigne said. “I hated it. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be; it didn’t fulfill my hopes and dreams.”
Lavigne left school and moved with her boyfriend to Oklahoma. She needed to find a career path in her new home, so she tentatively returned to cooking, enrolling in a vocational school for culinary arts. It was here that she quickly discovered her passion. From there, she entered cooking competitions, and soon her instructor was urging her to attend culinary school.
“I thought I was already in culinary school. My instructor gave me the option of attending Le Cordon Bleu in France, Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island or the Culinary Institute of America in New York,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne had never traveled outside of the country and had barely traveled outside Louisiana when she began attending the Culinary Institute of America. After she graduated, she assessed what she enjoyed in the food industry and the type of career she wanted to pursue.
“I knew that this wasn’t an easy field and it isn’t easy for women,” she said. “It’s very male-dominated- I even noticed that when I was in school. I was one of two women in my class.”
MORE: Chasing the future: Dooky Chase’s Embraces, Past, Present As It Plans For Future Endeavors
From Whole Foods to the home kitchen
She took that knowledge and dove into the industry head-first, working in every type of foodservice possible, including catering, country clubs, and restaurants. She settled in at Whole Foods in New Jersey because it was known as one of the best companies for which to work.
“I worked in the bakery at Whole Foods for fifteen years,” she said. “The bakery was something that I loved, so I stayed there.”
After giving birth to her son, Lavigne and her husband moved back to New Orleans. She worked at Whole Foods on Veterans, Broad Street, and Magazine Street, climbing the ranks from team member to running the bakery department within eight months.
When she gave birth to her second son, she knew she wanted to be home and spend time with her children. She started baking out of her home kitchen and her journey led her to opening her first business, Dee-Lightful Cupcakes, in 2017.
“For me, it was great,” she said. “I was baking cupcakes and cakes. I got contracts with 1-800 Flowers and Shari’s Berries fulfilling orders and making deliveries throughout the city.”
During COVID-19, Lavigne’s business took a significant hit.
“COVID broke my business,” she said. “Before COVID, a lot of the orders that were coming in were coming from office buildings and hospitals. Suddenly, that was no longer an option.”
Lavigne reached out to the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Tulane University for help. They matched her with a mentor who gave her advice on what she could do to pivot her business. With their help, she decided to go from a cupcake business to a dessert business and focus on online sales rather than deliveries. However, Covid numbers were still high a year later, and Lavigne’s sales were low.
READ MORE: The Cupcake Collection continues a delicious legacy on Magazine Street
“I wanted to do something that would change history.”
She took a job with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum as their director of culinary programming in April 2021. While teaching cooking classes there, Lavigne had an idea.
“I told them that I wanted to do something that would change history,” she said. “I proposed that I would own and teach a culinary school inside the museum.”
Deelightful Roux School of Cooking opened at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum on Feb. 1. Lavigne has been the first and only African-American woman to own a cooking school in the city in over 80 years.
Lavigne follows in the footsteps of Chef Lena Richard who, in 1937, became the first African-American woman to own a cooking school in New Orleans. Her school educated young African-Americans on developing hospitality and culinary skills so they could find work in the Jim Crow South.
“The school has given me the opportunity to teach visitors about Louisiana cuisine against this backdrop of Southern history,” Lavigne said. “Having that connection to the historical aspect is what sets us apart.”
Lavigne doesn’t hold back when teaching her two to two-and-half-hour classes. She said they are “hands-on,” and she expects her students to work. The course works through how to prepare an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert; everything is covered, from preparation to cooking. Lavigne also discusses the history of the foods being cooked and gives a guided tour throughout the museum for an even more detailed history lesson.
“We eat what we make and the students can ask me whatever food or food history questions that they want,” she said. “All of the classes are different and I’ve had people come in from all over the world. I haven’t had a bad class yet!”
I asked Lavigne about the one dish she would teach if she could only choose one. She chose jambalaya.
“I’ve talked to my class about the history of jambalaya and I explain that this wasn’t haute cuisine; it was created for people who were starving and nothing went to waste,” she said. “With jambalaya you can change it up with adding vegetables or a different protein.”
Lavigne said she is excited about the future and is planning special events for Essence weekend.
“We’ve had an overwhelming response of excitement,” she said. “People who have come have really loved the classes and our reviews online have been great.”
She emphasizes the importance of the classes not only for the history of New Orleans but for herself.
MORE: Know your NOLA: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Streetcars
“I represent Chef Lena Richard; this is a part of my legacy,” she said. “This is something I can give to my children and grandchildren for generations to come. We have some incredible female chefs in the city who get very little recognition and I don’t want that to continue. Women have made huge contributions to food and I want them to have the same respect and presence as any male chef does.”
Public classes at the Deelightful Roux School of Cooking are available on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 11 a.m. Private classes, birthday parties, and corporate events are reserved for the weekends. To book a class through the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, click here.