Leon West, a longtime New Orleans chef known for his mentorship and behind-the-scenes influence on the city’s cuisine, died Friday at the age of 74, reports NOLA.com. West was the first executive chef of New Orleans’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where he worked for a quarter of a century before moving on to lead the kitchen at Messina’s at the Terminal.
West began his career in New Orleans after moving from Boston in 1983; he was working for Aramark and agreed to a role as the Convention Center’s first executive chef. After it opened in 1984, West spent the next 25 years leading the Center’s massive culinary operation, catering conventions for tens of thousands and events for celebrities and athletes. He left in 2009 to work for Messina’s, a local catering company and event space at the Lakefront Airport.
While West never opened his own restaurant, he was known throughout his career as an influential figure in New Orleans food and a mentor, training countless young chefs in the kitchens at the Center. He worked with the American Culinary Federation of New Orleans, where he founded the Best Chefs of Louisiana program to recognize fellow chefs around the state. In 2017, West was inducted into the African American Chefs Hall of Fame alongside chefs Leah Chase, Marcus Samuelsson, Edna Lewis, Nina Compton, and others. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, West led Messina’s community feeding efforts in partnership with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen and the city of New Orleans.
According to NOLA.com, West collapsed in the kitchen at Messina’s on Friday and later died at University Medical Center. The cause of death has not been released. For a full obituary, see Ian McNulty’s report here.