Cecil Palmer was more than a fine chef; he was embraced as a much-loved member of New Orleans’s music and festival community. Born in Race Course, Jamaica, he brought the flavors and warm attitude of the island nation to his adopted hometown. Cecil Palmer, who immigrated to the United States in 1973, died on Friday, April 5, 2019, at the age of 74.
Palmer, as he was always simply known, was most recognized for his years manning food booths at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and French Quarter Festival, as well as at other, usually musical events like those held at Audubon Zoo. After a long night and perhaps a few too many drinks, it was often advised to make one’s first Jazz Fest stop at Palmer’s Jamaican Cuisine in the Fair Ground’s Congo Square area. Palmer’s healthy plates of chicken or fish with rice and steamed vegetables could provide the cure. Last year, he celebrated 36 years at the Fest, where he and his wife of 39 years, Betty, served up smiles along with their food. For 20 years, they did likewise at the French Quarter Fest, and were onboard at the first Essence Festival in 1995.
New Orleans’s bountiful mix of food and music suited Palmer. He loved reggae music and often took to Tipitina’s dancefloor back in the 1980s. He and Betty were also big fans of zydeco music, especially as played by accordionist and vocalist Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band. Their loyalties remained when Clifton’s son, accordionist and vocalist C.J. Chenier, took over the group.
Palmer began his career in culinary arts by attending a cooking school and working in restaurants in Jamaica. When he arrived in New Orleans, he used his skills at several restaurants including the Royal Sonesta, Willy Cohn’s Chalet, and Café Negril before, in 1988, he opened his own Palmer’s Cuisine in Mid-City. For 12 years, it was the spot to go for a taste of Jamaica, and Palmer’s hospitality, humor and lilting patois (sometimes referred to as patwa or patwah).
Not many people knew Palmer’s first name, Cecil, though he was widely known throughout the city. Palmer was the hard-working man standing over a stove who would take a pause to say hello to his many friends, some of whom only got to see him at festival time. He loved Bob Marley, the big keyboard accordion style of the Cheniers, stepping to some reggae music, and seeing people enjoy his food and music.
Cecil Palmer was simply a good guy—irie, mon—and a wonderful addition to the New Orleans community. He will be sorely missed by his family, friends, and all those lucky folks who ever made his acquaintance.