James Helferich, Artist in the Food World and Prison Chef, Dies at 75

James Earnest Helferich was born on Sept. 8, 1944, in Cleveland. His father, Earnest, was a machine repairman at the Ford foundry in Brook Park, Ohio; he had an uncanny ability to fix anything, a talent his son inherited. James’s mother, Eva (Gantos) Helferich, was a beautician who had her own beauty shop in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland, where the family lived.

James wanted to be a pilot, but his mother put the kibosh on that as a career — too dangerous, she said — so he decided on cooking school instead, and in 1965 he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

When Mr. Helferich was drafted in 1968, he was sent to West Germany as a mechanic despite his culinary chops. “Anybody can cook in the Army,” Richard Helferich said. “Not everybody can fix things.”

After his military service, Mr. Helferich began a career in hospitality. He was food and beverage director at a number of parks in Florida, including the Miami Seaquarium and Silver Springs, near Ocala.

Mr. Helferich met Frances Hewitt at SeaWorld, where she was a fry cook. They married in 1979. His wife was born without a sense of smell, and Mr. Helferich became her nose. He would describe a scent to her by conjuring a similar taste. The sweetness of jasmine, he’d tell her, was like biting into a ripe honeydew melon.

Eventually, the couple started their own catering company. And just before 2008, they chased a long-held dream and bought a restaurant. When the mortgage crisis hit, they closed the restaurant and struggled in the aftermath. In 2018, Ms. Helferich died suddenly of a heart condition.