Culture

Remembering the Life and Impact of Pioneering New Orleans Chef Leah Chase

Remembering the Life and Impact of Pioneering New Orleans Chef Leah Chase

On Saturday, June 1, one of the nation’s most distinguished Creole chefs, Leah Chase, passed away at 96, reports The New York Times. 

Chase, who was famously known as the owner of the popular New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, served as a local and national pioneer who fed several entertainers, politicians and civil rights leaders throughout her career. 

Her restaurant, which was named after her late husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., was often used as a gathering place for civil rights leaders to discuss strategies with their white allies during a time when it was illegal for white and Black people to sit in a restaurant together. Additionally, Mrs. Chase opened her doors to feed hungry Freedom Riders who were fresh off the road and she opened up her restaurant to be a meeting spot for members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. According to The New York Time, she even let a young Thurgood Marshall use her restaurant phone to call Robert F. Kennedy during peak business hours when lunch orders were pouring in. 

Chase, whose maiden name is Leah Lang, was born in Madisonville, Louisiana on Jan. 6, 1923 to a family of 13 children. After completing the sixth grade, she moved to New Orleans with an aunt to complete her education because her local town had no high schools that taught African-American children. 

After graduating from high school at 16, she started working at a French Quarter restaurant, and it was then when she developed a love and passion for cooking and feeding people. 

Her restaurant, which operated during a time period when Jim Crow laws were heavy in the south, served as an upscale place for African-Americans to dine and gather. 

“In these desegregated times, it’s hard to imagine what it meant for Leah Chase to try to create a fancy restaurant for Black people,” author and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie, who is the son of a civil rights lawyer and educator, told The New York Times. “Even in the days when my parents were courting, Black people had Little League championship teams, college graduations and date nights with special people, Dooky Chase’s was the place you went to for those occasions at the time when Galatoire’s and Antoine’s didn’t serve ‘colored.’”

Chase, who also had a love for art and sat on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art, filled the walls of her restaurant with Black art pieces by prominent artists like Elizabeth Catlett and John T. Biggers. Today, displays of her work in the kitchen, including a portrait of her chopping squash, is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Other artifacts from her kitchen are on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

The pioneering chef, who won several awards for her civil rights work and cooking, touched the lives of many people, including former President Barack Obama who honored Chase’s passing by tweeting, “What a life. American history has always been driven by visionaries like Leah Chase – and all the men and women who worked and ate at Dooky Chase’s over the years – folks who serve up progress one bowl of gumbo at a time.” 

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