The late Edna Lewis was a celebrated chef who introduced the comfort foods of her farming community in the South to a much wider audience. Lewis authored three popular cookbooks that many say revived the lost art of refined southern cuisine.
Born April 13, 1916 in the farming settlement of Freetown in Orange County, Virginia, Lewis was the granddaughter of a former slave. The community Lewis grew up in was established with the help of her relative. As a child, she grew up learning her family’s cooking methods and refined those skills using whatever means she could.
At 16, Lewis left home to find work abroad. After living in Washington, D.C. for a while, she headed to New York and eventually found work as a seamstress. It was reported that she once made a dress for Marilyn Monroe and also sewed the African-styled dresses she became known for.
Lewis met and married Steve Kingston, reportedly a communist, and then partnered with antiques dealer, John Nicholson. Together, the restaurant Cafe Nicholson was established in 1949. It became a destination for many celebrities and notable figures including Marlon Brando, Gloria Vanderbilt, Tennessee Williams and several other celebrities who flocked there for Lewis’ cheese souffles and roast chicken dishes.
In the ’60’s, Lewis suffered a leg injury and was forced to stop cooking for a time. During that period, Lewis turned her handwritten recipes into a cookbook at the suggestion of Judith Jones, an editor who also worked with Julia Child. The first of Lewis’ three books, The Edna Lewis Cookbook was published in 1972.
The follow-up title, The Taste of Country Cooking became an instant smash with the cooking community and cemented Lewis’ status among the elite of her industry. This would lead to a series of awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 1990, and the James Beard Living Legend Award in 1995.
The talented chef worked in a variety of restaurants across the country, helping to revamp menus with her signature, award-winning souffles.
Lewis died peacefully in 2006 at the age of 89.
Today, the Edna Lewis Foundation serves as a hub for Black female chefs looking to place a foothold within the competitive industry. The board is advised by Lewis’ sister, Mrs. Ruth Lewis Smith.