In a business in which success seemed far easier for white men, Leah Chase refused to be shut out. As chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, TV personality and arguably the world’s leading authority on Creole cuisine, the Louisiana native pushed open doors with a forceful combination of smarts and grit, couched in a Southern charm that belied her indomitable will.
An inspiration to generations of chefs, male and female, white and of color, Chase died over the weekend at age 96 in her son’s home near Dooky Chase’s, the New Orleans restaurant she’d run since segregation was an entrenched part of life in the South. For the 55 or so years she was involved with the establishment, she provided the city’s African-American population with a high-caliber dining option that could go okra to okra with Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and the other French Quarter standouts that catered to the white population.
People of color largely knew those culinary cathedrals as places where they might work out of sight in the kitchen but weren’t welcome to dine. Now they had a place whose food and service equally matched what white swells enjoyed.
Chase’s brilliance in the kitchen brought her fame equal to what such local celebrities as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse would enjoy. Because of her stature, she never dodged controversy. She fed the white college students who came south in the mid-1960s to register voters and push for civil rights, a cause that would cost some of the Freedom Riders their lives. Local authorities objected to the visits, but didn’t dare interfere with Dooky Chase’s business because of the backlash it would evoke.
Dooky Chase’s is located in Treme, the largely African-American neighborhood that was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. President George W. Bush was vilified locally for what many perceived as a lack of urgency and concern. Yet Chase welcomed him with a meal of Creole specialties, including her famous crab soup. She made sure Bush saw firsthand the damage that was done to the African-American community. Chase and her husband would spend two years working on their restaurant before it could reopen to the public.
“Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together,” Chase’s family said in a post on Dooky Chase’s website confirming the chef’s death.
Chase came to the industry through the back door, working at 18 in the kitchens of the fine-dining restaurants that catered to genteel locals and food-savvy tourists in the French Quarter. She came from a large family; reports vary on how many siblings she had, with the number ranging from 10 to 13.
Her father was a ship caulker, and her mother was a nurse and midwife. With so many mouths to feed, the family had a sizable garden, and the extended family owned a 20-acre strawberry farm. Chase would later say her appreciation for food started back in the Great Depression, when she and her siblings would tend their family’s plots.
In her teens, working in fine-dining kitchens, Chase discovered a passion for cooking. She put it on hold after marrying jazz musician Dooky Chase in 1946, while in her early 20s. They would raise four children, with Dooky supplementing his income as a trumpet player and band leader by working in a Treme sandwich shop owned by his family. It was named after his father, Dooky Chase Sr.
Leah would join him in that endeavor when the children no longer needed her constant attention. She nudged Dooky and his family to upgrade the place and serve a higher caliber of fare. The sandwich shop evolved into a sit-down gem featuring African-American art and Leah Chase’s Creole signatures. The menu earned her the unofficial designation as the Queen of Creole Cuisine.
Chase’s fame would get a big boost in the 1980s when regional American cuisine drew the attention of an increasingly savvy dining-out public. Cajun and Creole specialties went mainstream, and Chase was recognized as the queen of New Orleans’ signature fare.
She remained in the limelight until recent weeks, when the devout Catholic’s failure to show for Holy Thursday lunch raised concerns about her health. The special meal is usually booked a year in advance, according to The New York Times.
Leah Chase’s chef’s whites are featured in Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Dooky Chase’s remains open.