Leah Chase, the New Orleans chef who turned her in-laws’ sandwich shop into an institution of Creole cooking, died on Saturday, June 1, at the age of 96.
Born into a family of 14 children in 1923, Chase would go on to work in a restaurant in the French Quarter after high school, at one point making $1 a day, and eventually meeting her husband, the jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr. Together, Leah and Dooky turned his parents’ po'boy shop into the first and only fine dining restaurant in NOLA that welcomed African American diners.
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“I like to think we changed the course of America in this restaurant over a bowl of gumbo.” - Leah Chase⠀ ⠀ Beloved Chef. Civil Rights Activist. Queen of Creole Cuisine.⠀ ⠀ Leah Chase spent seven decades creating countless delicious meals in the famed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant — nourishing musicians, presidents, and Civil Rights leaders.⠀ ⠀ When it comes to New Orleans culinary culture, Chef Chase was the heart and soul.⠀ ⠀ Thank you for feeding the masses and fueling a movement.
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Later, during the early days of the civil rights movement, Dooky Chase’s served as a crucial gathering point for black leaders and white allies to convene in secret—at a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to dine together. “In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken,” Chase was known to say.
Chase and her husband also turned the restaurant into the first art gallery for local black artists, showcasing their art on the restaurant’s walls.
“Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together,” Chase's family said in a statement. “One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the civil rights movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity. She saw her role and that of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to serve as a vehicle for social change during a difficult time in our country’s history.”
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I’m sorry to hear of the passing of legendary soul food chef Leah Chase, founder of the amazing New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase. I’ve eaten there three times and it was the best soul food I’ve ever had. Mama Chase made it to 96 and left a legacy that will be cherished forever.
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She fed ribs to Martin Luther King, Sr., gumbo to the novelist James Baldwin, crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau to President George W. Bush, and more gumbo to President Barack Obama. Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones were also among her patrons. Dooky Chase’s hosted meetings for the NAACP, voter registration campaigns, and, before the arrival of black-owned banks in New Orleans, allowed patrons to cash their paychecks on Friday nights, while they got a drink and a po'boy.
In 2009, when Disney made The Princess and the Frog—the first to feature a black princess—it was Chase who served as the inspiration for Tiana, the tenacious aspiring chef who realized her lifelong dream of running her own restaurant, meeting the love of her life in the meantime.
On Twitter, chefs and patrons paid homage to Chase and her incredible contributions to New Orleans culture and American history.
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. https://t.co/2LpuIbxvHk pic.twitter.com/Y4i5snKjn7— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 3, 2019
Leah Chase was a legend, an icon and an inspiration. It is impossible to overstate what she meant to our City and to our community. At Dooky Chase’s Restaurant: she made creole cuisine the cultural force that it is today. pic.twitter.com/MSFaNdLvsx— Mayor LaToya Cantrell (@mayorcantrell) June 2, 2019
Zella Palmer of @Dillard_Ray on Leah Chase’s impact on Black New Orleans and blueprint for Black people everywhere is just what I needed this morning 🙌🏿— korsha wilson (@korshawilson) June 4, 2019
Let’s continue the work and continue to fight for equality. It’s the best way to honor her legacy. https://t.co/App0QTYkMF
Pennies in heaven, or a bowl of red beans and rice for Leah Chase. When I saw her at SFA, she said Dooky liked to stay home and count his money. #LeahChase terrific recipe by Emily & @AlonShaya pic.twitter.com/UYVmz48Vav— Wendell David Brock (@MrBrock) June 4, 2019
Leah Chase was a great lady that cared about everyone. President Bush and I had lunch with her after Katrina. With all New Orleans was dealing with, she was worried about the people of Plaqumines parish getting food. A loving caring lady and will be missed by the world. https://t.co/43VfjO5VXd— Office of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser (@LouisianaLtGov) June 2, 2019
The 2nd line for Leah Chase gets underway outside of Dooky Chase's. pic.twitter.com/ZWf7BeyWCA— Meg Farris (@megfarrisWWL) June 3, 2019
We mourn the loss of this beautiful soul, Leah Chase. She inspired so many and represented all that is great about New Orleans! https://t.co/ZJQeXj4BpE— Drew Brees (@drewbrees) June 2, 2019
Leah Chase's "legacy lives on in every person—guest, chef or activist—who understands the deep human connection that comes from sharing a meal, and who are fighting to return dignity and humanity to our food system." https://t.co/YuZwticoGx— James Beard Foundation (@beardfoundation) June 3, 2019