Joseph “Joe” Samuel Cahn, founder of the New Orleans School of Cooking and self-proclaimed “commissioner of tailgating,” died of complications from cardiovascular disease Monday (Dec. 31) in a hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, his family said. He was 70.

Mr. Cahn, who grew up in the Palm-Air subdivision in Metairie, travelled the United States as the “commissioner of tailgating,” after creating the role for himself in 1996.

“Joe went out with a bang!,” Karen, his wife of 34 years, said in a statement released by the family. “Joe’s infectious personality and his love of life, people and food inspired him to spread joy far and wide. This was the most important thing to him.”

Tailgating became the vehicle for him to spread that love, she said.

Mr. Cahn tailgated at football stadiums, NASCAR tracks and other sporting events for 23 seasons, covering more than 1 million miles and visiting more than 1,000 tailgate parties in hundreds of cities, according to his family.

“It’s 2018. How time flies when you’re eating a lot of food in a parking lot,” Mr. Cahn joked in a video for Tailgating.com, where he invited people to share their tailgating recipes and videos. He called tailgating “the last great American neighborhood.”

A graduate of Warren Easton High School, Mr. Cahn attended business classes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the 1960s. A self-taught cook, he opened the New Orleans School of Cooking on Conti Street in 1980. He moved the cooking school into Jax Brewery in 1984, where he also opened the Louisiana General Store.

In 1996, he sold the business and his New Orleans house, bought a motor home and began traveling the country in search of great tailgating, his family said.

It was during Mr. Cahn’s time in Jax Brewery that he met Greg Leighton, who with his wife Suzanne, now owns the New Orleans School of Cooking.

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“We would see each other every other day for years,” said Leighton, who also had a business in the brewery. In the 1990s, Mr. Cahn and Leighton partnered on a New Year’s Eve event. When Leighton wanted to continue in the special events business, Mr. Cahn introduced him to Bruce Trascher, who was working as a general manager at the cooking school. Trascher and Leighton became partners, operating out of the Riverview Room there.

Mr. Cahn sold the cooking school to an out-of-town company, and when that company’s lease was up in the brewery, it decided to sell the business, so Leighton and Trascher, who died several years ago, bought it. They re-opened the New Orleans School of Cooking at its current location on St. Louis Street in January 1998.

Through the transition, Mr. Cahn remained a friend and an ambassador for the cooking school, Leighton said.

“As a matter of fact, just two weeks ago, he came by with a tub of memorabilia, with old magazine articles and clippings – all kinds of historical information,” Leighton said, calling Mr. Cahn the school’s “founder and creative godfather.”

Julia Child and Joe Cahn in an undated photo. (Photo from the New Orleans School of Cooking)
Julia Child and Joe Cahn in an undated photo. (Photo from the New Orleans School of Cooking)  New Orleans School of Cooking

The cooking school plans to create a tribute to Mr. Cahn in its window this week.

Leighton described Mr. Cahn as “comical, passionate and inspiring. Anybody who met him, when they would think back on that experience, they would have to smile about it.

“Joe was very enthusiastic about life,” Leighton said. “He was by no means a wallflower. In addition to that enthusiasm, there was genuine concern on his part for the people he met, what they were doing, what he could do for them. He was just so passionate about the city, the history, the food, everything. … He was just preaching the gospel of New Orleans and New Orleans cuisine while he was on the road and was tailgating.”

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That enthusiasm for the city earned him the moniker of “honorary doorman” at Mother’s Restaurant on Poydras Street, a spokesman for the restaurant said.

Mr. Cahn made many appearances in New Orleans and Louisiana media. His “commissioner of tailgating” gig garnered him national attention as well in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, the NFL Network, ESPN, FOX & Friends, CNN, CBS and The Weather Channel.

He also served as a spokesman for brands, such as Campbell’s, Kraft, Coca-Cola and the Aluminum Association.

He contributed support to nonprofits, such as the Chefs’ Charity for Children for St. Michael Special School in New Orleans and the American Culinary Federation, and he volunteered to help the homeless.

Mr. Cahn is survived by his wife, Karen Elaine Humphries Cahn of Fort Worth Texas, and his sisters Lois Ruth Cahn Taylor and Susan Caroline Cahn, both of South Carolina. He was preceded in death by his parents, Louis Joseph “Old Joe” Cahn and Ruth Lois Koek Cahn.

Funeral and memorial arrangements are pending.

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