Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase has fed Quincy Jones, Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Ray Charles, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and countless others as Executive Chef of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant — one of the best-known and most culturally significant restaurants in New Orleans. Chase has more recently served as the inspiration for Princess Tiana in Disney’s Princess and the Frog.
Born on January 6, 1923 in New Orleans, Chase was one of 14 children. She was raised in the small town of Madisonville, LA. There were no high schools for black children, so after sixth grade, Chase moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt. After completing high school, Chase had a colorful work history including managing two amateur boxers and becoming the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Her favorite job, though, was waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was here that she developed her love for food and feeding others.
In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose father had opened a street corner stand selling lottery tickets and his wife’s homemade po’boy sandwiches. Eventually, Leah and Edgar Dooky Jr. took over the business, which by then had become a sit-down restaurant and a favorite local gathering place.
In a town deeply divided by segregation, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was one of the only public places in New Orleans where mixed race groups could meet to discuss strategy for the local Civil Rights Movement. Although such gatherings were illegal through most of the 1960s, Dooky Chase’s was so popular; it would have caused a public uproar if local law enforcement had interrupted the meetings. Black voter registration campaign organizers, the NAACP, backdoor political meetings and countless others often found a home at Dooky Chase’s, and Chase cooked for them all.
Chase was also a patron of black art and her collection — displayed on the walls of her restaurant — was at one time considered New Orleans’ best collection of African American art. She served on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts and has even testified before Congress to lobby for greater funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. She has participated in countless political campaigns and has used her culinary talents and celebrity to raise money for a myriad of charities and services. Her cookbooks, including The Dooky Chase Cookbook, And Still I Cook, and Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This, are popular and have received great praise among her most famous colleagues.
Chase has received many awards, including multiple awards from the NAACP, the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1997 Loving Cup Award, the Weiss Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women. Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010. She was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2000. Chase received honorary degrees from Tulane University, Dillard University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, Loyola University New Orleans, and Johnson & Wales University. She is also the recipient of the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, the highest award presented to an individual by Xavier University of Louisiana. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, named a permanent gallery in Chase’s honor in 2009. She also served on many boards, including the Arts Council of New Orleans, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Urban League. She is member of the Women of The Storm and the International Women’s Forum. She had four children, sixteen grandchildren and twenty-two great-grandchildren.
Chase who died on June 1 at age 96, got an authentic New Orleans sendoff: warm reminiscences and mourning mixed with a Mardi Gras-style celebration of her life. Fellow chefs, musicians, family and friends were among hundreds who filed through a New Orleans church to pay last respects to Leah Chase. Her legacy lives on and she will be remembered. May she rest in peace.