World-renowned chef Leah Chase reflects on food, life, legacy

Michael Chen, General Associate

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Mother, princess and civil rights icon. Chef Leah Chase has been them all. Renowned throughout the city of New Orleans as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” the 96-year-old legend prides herself most on being able to connect with others through the exquisite food that she serves her customers.

“It’s all about people,” Chase said. “I don’t care who you are, what you did, or how you grew up in the world. It’s all about people. People helping you do what you do to rise above it all. People, that’s the most important thing. That’s what I learned. No matter what you looked like, you were still a human being.”

Photo courtesy of Gavin Goins

Born in 1923, Chase grew up in an impoverished family in Madisonville, Louisiana. Her father, a caulker, always reminded her and her siblings to be independent and work hard for what they had. It was from him that she learned to cultivate a strong and indisputable work ethic which has kept her coming back to the kitchen for the past 70 years. Despite her family’s financial state, Chase looks back on her childhood as a positive experience.

“I came up very poor, but there is an advantage of wherever you come,” Chase said. “You learn wherever you come from … If you go through the woods, you know which trees you can touch and which trees you can’t touch. You know a poison ivy from a Virginia creeper. So you learn a lot coming up just walking through the woods.”

After elementary school, Chase moved across the lake to New Orleans, where she started high school. She took on multiple jobs, including one waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was also during those years where she developed passions for food and cooking for others, which she was able to cultivate as an executive chef of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, the establishment her father-in-law started in 1941.

For the past 60 years, Chase has been the backbone of the restaurant that she and her husband, Edgar Dooky Chase Jr., helped unfold, standing steadfast as both her restaurant and the city of New Orleans evolve into the cultural and culinary attractions they are today.

Back during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was a gathering place for civil rights leaders who convened there to discuss civil and economic rights and to strategize protests and movements. Chase played a pivotal role during this era, for she both hosted and harbored black activists, with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall in her restaurant. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black voter registration campaigns and countless others also congregated at Dooky Chase’s, labeling it as a forum for free speech and political activism.

“Well we had to feed them, that’s all we could do,” Chase recalls. “The police never ever entered this building, so the black people thought this was a safe place. They called this a safe haven because they knew that nobody would come through that door. We never had an incident inside this restaurant.”

It was also at Dooky Chase’s where many of those in the New Orleans Black community sought refuge. Due to the heavily segregated state of the city, many Black people were marginalized by their white neighbors. They still stopped by the restaurant, however, to meet with their friends and to grab a drink and a po’boy.

Reminiscing on those years, Chase holds a fondness for the community that she was able to protect and foster.

“It’s a good feeling that I helped create this safe haven,” Chase said. “I feel privileged to have been a part of them.”

While she is a master of the culinary arts, Chase is also a prominent icon in the fine arts. A patron of Black art, which is still displayed across the walls of her restaurant today, Chase has helped bring Black culture to the forefront of American society. She has also written cookbooks about Creole cuisine and has won multiple awards for her food and service to the community.

Chase has also been the subject of a song by Ray Charles and served as the inspiration for Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog.”

“That came out to be the cutest little movie you’ve ever seen,” Chase said. “It was an amazing thing. It just makes you understand that everybody can get up doing what you have to do.”

Due to her fame and the extensive history behind her restaurant, Chase is still sought today by many, both locals and visitors alike. Two of her more famous guests were the 43rd and 44th Presidents of the United States. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have graced Chase’s doorstep during their presidencies, a privilege she says she never dreamed of.

While Chase has served multiple other celebrities, such as Beyoncé Knowles and Hank Aaron, her love for cooking still branches to all the hundreds who taste her food each day.

“I don’t care how the world turns or how it goes or whoever you are. You have to eat. If you can feed them, that gives them the strength to go on.”

In a town as vibrant and soulful as New Orleans, Chase stands to be one of the most quintessential figures in the city’s history due to her commitment to food, peace and community.

Kila Moore contributed to the reporting of this article.