Like many people who find success from hard work, Dwynesha “Chef Dee” Lavigne says yes first, then figures it out on the back end. It’s how she wound up with her own pastry business Deelightful Desserts; how she landed a regular cooking spot on WWL on Sunday mornings; and it’s why she’s the newly named education director of cooking classes at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFab) in New Orleans.
Lavigne’s baking comes in all kinds of forms, including Deelightful Bites, mini-cake desserts layered with buttercream frosting in flavors with mood board names like wedding cake and chocolate cloud — all served in Instagram-friendly jars. Her sprinkle-covered vanilla cupcakes are a specialty, as are her pretzel nut brownies and chewy chocolate chip cookies. At SoFab, she’ll be leading classes in baking as well as an introduction to Cajun and Creole cuisine course.
A lifelong home cook and baker, Lavigne realized in college that despite being a math wiz, her career path in accounting wasn’t going to satisfy her. So she left the University of New Orleans and moved with her boyfriend (now husband) to Oklahoma, where she started cooking for him and his teammates on the Oklahoma State college football team.
“Our house was always filled with football players,” she says. Continuous rave reviews from players made her thinking about getting a job as a chef, and she enrolled in a local community college for culinary arts. Lavigne planned to enter the workforce after graduating, but her teachers felt otherwise, recognizing that her talent and drive deserved a more ambitious education. Which is how she wound up in Hyde Park at the Culinary Institute of America. Although she gravitated to baking, she didn’t want to confine herself to one track and graduated with a culinary degree from the CIA.
After doing her externship back in New Orleans at the Marriott on Canal, her husband’s job took the couple to New Jersey, where she worked at a local supermarket and later applied to Whole Foods. Although on a management track, getting pregnant with her first child made Lavigne reassess. “I knew I couldn’t do all the ripping and running I was doing before. I wanted to be home with my baby,” said the 43-year-old Ninth Ward native.
When one of her sisters — she’s one of eight siblings — had surgery, she packed up her toddler and came home to help. That was in late August 2005, three days before Hurricane Katrina. Lavigne showed up just in time for a harrowing evacuation with her multi-generational family.
“It was the worst,” she says. “We originally thought we’d all come to my sister’s house in LaPlace where she was recovering and hunker down.” With 20 adults and children to take care of and all the local stores empty of food and supplies, it quickly became clear that the family would have to go north. The caravan wound up in northern Louisiana, where her mom stayed for five years, her home destroyed by the flood.
Lavigne and her husband moved back to New Orleans to help their families rebuild. She transferred to Whole Foods on Magazine Street, which she credits as the place that forged her scratch baking skills and taught her the systems and culture she used as a foundation for her own business, Dee’s Deelightful Desserts. Along the way, she’s received accolades, including The Paul McIlhenny Culinary Entrepreneurism Scholarship through the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and the Big Top Carnival Baking Competition.
Lavigne was cautious about work during the pandemic. “We are a multi-generational household, ages six to 83,” she said. But now that vaccines are changing the landscape, she’s baking for clients and selling her treats at pop-up markets, hosting four TV cooking segments a month, and managing classes at SoFab. Looking ahead, she’s excited to be working with the Smithsonian on a profile of Lena Richards, the New Orleans celebrity chef who broke barriers as the first Black woman to have a cooking show on television.
At the heart of it all, as it’s always been, Lavigne wants to feed people.
“I want to make food and desserts that when you eat them, it makes your soul smile,” she said. “That means the least amount of whole ingredients, simply delicious. If food on a plate looks like you played with it, it’s because you played with it. You can fake presentation, but you can’t fake flavor.”
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