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Lee Bailey, 76; Expert on Cooking, Decor and Entertaining

October 18, 2003|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Lee Bailey, an expert on home decor and entertaining who wrote cookbooks that combined recipes with ideas about presentation, died Thursday at his home in New York City. He was 76 and had recently suffered a series of strokes.

Born in Bunkie, La., Bailey began his career in the home furnishing world and developed his cooking skills as a hobby. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, he taught design at Tulane University in New Orleans for six years before returning to New York City to teach at Parsons.

In the early 1970s, he opened the Lee Bailey Shop for interior decor in Southampton, N.Y., and a similar shop in New York City as well as starting a design consulting firm.

Several years later, he created a fancy foods and home accessories boutique for Henri Bendel women's specialty store in Manhattan. He later created a similar boutique for Saks Fifth Avenue, where he remained until 1991.

Starting in the early 1980s, Bailey wrote a series of cookbooks that included informative photographs, blending his design talent with his love for kitchen arts and crafts. Each book focused on a single theme, such as country cooking, "city food," soup or dessert. His way of emphasizing recipes as well as the attractive arrangement of food on the plate was unusual but soon became standard.

In interviews, he said he was "a good cook, not a great cook," and pointed out that food was actually a second career.

"I'm not part of the food mafia," Bailey once told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. "My books use a number of different facets. It's the visual part that I understand, but I feel quite comfortable with food."

His books pioneered the visual presentation of a meal.

"Lee Bailey was one of the very first people to do a series of home entertainment books that included a photograph with every recipe," said Ellen Rose, owner of the Cooks Library bookstore on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles. "He included ideas about how to present a dish, how to set a table beautifully. Only he and Martha Stewart were doing books like it at the time."

While Stewart focused her work on life in Connecticut, Bailey focused on Manhattan and the Hamptons. He kept a sense of humor about his subject, which helped take the dread out of cooking for beginners. He also offered his coaching and advice as a columnist for Food & Wine magazine and as an occasional contributor to The Times' Sunday magazine in the 1980s.

"Learn to cook it the way you like it," he wrote in a column in 1987 for The Times. "Don't depend too heavily on presentation. The best looking, most expensive table setting in the world will never make up for mediocre food."

When the decor is fussy, he cautioned, "I get a sneaky suspicion there is too much going on at the table and not enough in the kitchen."

Many of Bailey's books are menu cookbooks. He traveled extensively to collect regional recipes but had a special rapport with the American South. "Lee Bailey's Southern Food and Plantation Houses" includes photographs of historic homes in Natchez, Miss., along with local recipes.

His "Lee Bailey's New Orleans: Good Food and Glorious Homes" was a joint effort with Ella Brennan of the family-owned Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans. A number of the recipes came from the Commander's kitchen.

"Even before I knew he was from the South, I thought he had to be from there," said Rose, who has most of Bailey's books in her personal library. "He had a Southern graciousness about the way he cooked and entertained."

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