Joe Cahn, the comedic New Orleans cooking school teacher who ate his way across America bringing laughter at every stop as the self-professed commissioner of tailgating, died Monday. He was 70.
Cahn’s wife Karen said he died of cardiac arrest at a hospital near their home in Fort Worth, Texas.
After a career in New Orleans as a chef and cooking school teacher, Cahn invented the role of Commissioner of Tailgating for himself in 1996. He sold his business, the New Orleans School of Cooking, which he had founded in 1980, bought a motor home and hit the road in search of good game-day food.
“I wanted to actually do a television series like Charles Kuralt, traveling around getting recipes,” Cahn said in a 2012 CBS interview. “I thought that tailgating and going around to the stadiums was a good way to see the country and to get recipes.”
His first tailgating experience that year came in Minnesota and within a few weeks, Cahn had found his new calling – traveling the country and the world. He would tailgate at football stadiums (before professional and college games), at NASCAR tracks and other sporting events and concerts, often with TV cameras and reporters in tow. National sponsors sought him to endorse their products as well.
“There is no bigger party every week in this country than tailgating,” Cahn said in a 2002 WWL-TV interview. “This is the last great American neighborhood, so to speak. This is where you’re walking along and talking to people, this is where you’re walking through thousands of backyards with no privacy fences.”
In the 22 years since he first hit the road as Commissioner of Tailgating, Cahn drove his motor home more than a million miles, visiting all existing and former NFL stadiums and more than 200 college stadiums. “To walk around with him was truly an amazing experience,” said friend Stu Barash, who first met Cahn in the 1970s. “People would come up to him saying ‘Hey, Joe! Eat this!’”
Cahn, who attended LSU in the 1960s, said he had never really tailgated until he went on the road in the 1990s. “Every place is a little bit different, but they are really all tremendous,” Cahn said in a 2013 Advocate interview. “To go up to Green Bay when it is 10 degrees or 9 degrees and see people huddling around, or Buffalo in the middle of a snowstorm. … Wherever I am on that given day is the best place in the world.”
Just as at his cooking school, his outgoing personality and comedic timing made him a natural for interacting with fans on the road. “He loved life, he loved making people happy and had the quick wit to do it,” said chef Kevin Belton, who worked alongside Cahn at the New Orleans School of Cooking. “His idea when he opened the school was to celebrate New Orleans, show off Louisiana to everybody and he just had this zest for life that made it easy for him to share what he loved with other people.”
Belton said that Cahn, a longtime Walt Disney fan, had a knack for marketing and performing and modeled his work at the cooking school on the Disney experience. “When you walk into a Disney park, you forget about all your cares and it becomes the happiest place on Earth. Joe wanted the school to be like that.”
Belton began working at the New Orleans School of Cooking in 1990, running the attached general store that sold New Orleans and Louisiana food products. “We would go take trips throughout south Louisiana and meet people at fairs and markets and then stock their products, which was unique at the time.”
Cahn was essentially a self-taught chef, and friends joked that he really could only cook four things: gumbo, jambalaya, bread pudding and pralines. “But he did it so well,” Belton laughed, “and even if he didn’t know what he was talking about he'd make you think he did.”
A New Orleans native, Cahn worked in a variety of careers, from ditch-digger and oil rig worker to horse and buggy driver, consumer credit counselor and restaurateur, before opening the New Orleans School of Cooking on Conti Street in June 1980. “When we work, we should have a passion for whatever we do,” he said in 2002, explaining his love for his newfound career.
The cooking school would move to Jax Brewery in 1984 then later to its current location on St. Louis Street. At the school, Cahn, who was described by one reporter as having a “Mr. Clean bald head and a Blackbeard kind of wraparound black beard,” would explain to visitors the differences between Cajun and Creole cuisine, demonstrate cooking techniques and prepare a meal, all while telling jokes and sharing laughs.
“I would bring tour groups there and then sit with them and take his class,” Barash said. “I’d be laughing my head off and the tourists would say, “You’re just being nice. Surely you’ve heard all his jokes before.” But the truth was he was so good, he came up with new material all the time.”
Cahn lent his time and talents to many local and national fundraisers, including the Chefs’ Charity for Children for St. Michael Special School, where he appeared for more than a decade.
A 1966 graduate of Warren Easton High School, he was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
Cahn and his wife, Karen, were married from 1984-94, then remarried in 2007, choosing The Grove, the legendary tailgating area at the University of Mississippi, as their honeymoon spot when LSU played there that year.
She said there are plans for a celebration of life in New Orleans at a later date.