Leah Chase, History-Making New Orleans Chef, Leaves Behind a Legacy

At Dooky Chase's, the civil rights activist served progress with each bowl of gumbo.

June  4, 2019
Photo by Mark Weinberg

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.

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.”

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.

How has Leah Chase influenced and inspired you? We’d love to hear your memories and stories in the comments section below.

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Karen Lo

Written by: Karen Lo

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