23 Aug Jonathan Cartu Suggest: Leon West, unsung hero among New Orleans chefs, dies at 74:…
In a city known for big flavors and big parties, no one put on a bigger feast than New Orleans chef Leon West, the first executive chef of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
He also approached the work with a big heart, which is why his admirers say his impact reaches deep into the city’s food culture.
“Everything he did was about the future of the profession, the next generation coming up. He truly believed his role was to mentor and show others the way,” said Mark Daniels, who worked with West in his last job as chef at Messina‘s at the Terminal, the event space at the Lakefront Airport.
West died Friday, Aug. 21, at age 74, Daniels confirmed. West was on the job at the time, working in the kitchen at Messina’s when he collapsed, and was brought to University Medical Center, Daniels said. The cause of death has not been determined.
West never owned his own restaurant, and as chefs became more high-profile in popular culture, his role remained largely behind the scenes.
But his legacy is sweeping, and his reputation among fellow chefs is legendary.
“He was an icon,” Daniels said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a kitchen in this town without someone he trained. He taught everybody.”
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Over the course of 25 years at the convention center, he directed meals that gave millions of visitors a taste of New Orleans and ran a kitchen that employed some 200 people at once.
Other chefs were in awe of his ability to balance the logistics of enormous events, serving perhaps thousands of people at once, with the rigorous standards and fine-tuned taste he maintained.
“Of all the chefs in the city, this man had the deepest experience and skill levels; he had scope and also intensity,” said Ruth Varisco, a fellow chef who worked with West through the American Culinary Federation of New Orleans, an important group in his life.
Center’s first chef
West was originally from Boston and grew up in a family of eight children. He got his start in the business as a teenager busing tables and washing dishes at a local diner. He attended the Massachusetts Vocational and Technical School’s Culinary Arts Program and later worked at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston.
He started with national food service company Aramark in 1978, and five years later that company sent him to New Orleans to prepare the forthcoming convention center, which at the time was still being used for the World’s Fair. When the center opened in 1984, West was at the helm of its massive culinary operation.
Through the years, West orchestrated the food for many high-profile events that came to New Orleans, including the National Football League Commissioner’s Party, Taste of the NFL, the NCAA Bowl Championship Series VIP Reception and the NBA All-Stars Players Party. One event in which he took particular pride was a tech convention that entailed meals for 35,000 people, three times a day, for a week.
“He was happiest when everything was running smoothly. It was his piece of silk, that’s what he called it,” said Varisco. “In this business you plan on things going wrong, especially at the scale where he worked, but his anticipation and planning came in and made it go right.”
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West departed the convention center in 2009 and later went to work for Messina’s, which runs a catering company and the restaurant at the lakefront airport.
During the pandemic, he was directing the company’s contributions to community feeding efforts, preparing ready-to-eat meals for the nonprofit World Central Kitchen and a city-led meal program for vulnerable residents.
Varisco said West brought a resolute professionalism to any task he undertook, whether for a big client or for a community cause.
“He was a truly great chef, he nurtured, he gave of himself, he understood leadership and team building,” she said. “He embodied my idea of what a true professional should be.”
One of West’s passions was the American Culinary Federation of New Orleans, which helps fund scholarships for students pursuing culinary careers.
Varisco said it was West who came up with the group’s Best Chefs of Louisiana program as a form of peer recognition for fellow chefs around the state. Many of the chefs included work in hotels, catering and other hospitality venues that rarely get culinary award consideration. Framed posters honoring each year’s slate of honorees now hang on restaurant and kitchen walls around Louisiana, each a portrait of the diversity across the industry.
“He decided to honor the chefs in the trenches, the great chefs of Louisiana who work so hard but don’t always get the recognition,” Varisco said. “No one understood how hard they work like…