June 20, 2019

Remembering Leah Chase, New Orleans Icon

Remembering Leah Chase, New Orleans Icon

Leah Chase, New Orleans legend, passed away at age 96.  She left an indelible impact not only on the New Orleans community, but the world at large.

Leah Chase was born to Catholic Creole parents and grew up Madisonville, Louisiana. Chase was one of 13 siblings and they all helped cultivate the land, especially on the 20-acre strawberry farm her father’s family owned, which Chase described as having significant impact on her life and her vast knowledge of food:

“I always say it’s good coming up in a small, rural town because you learn about animals. Kids today don’t know the food they eat. If you come up in a country town, where there’s some farming, some cattle raising, some chicken raising, you know about those things … When we went to pick strawberries we had to walk maybe four or five miles through the woods and you learned what you could eat. You knew you could eat that mayhaw, you could eat muscadines. You knew that, growing up in the woods. You just knew things. You got to appreciate things.”

Chase moved to New Orleans to pursue a Catholic education since her hometown did not offer a Catholic education for black people.  She started waitressing in the French Quarter and learned a lot about the restaurant industry.

Later on, she met and married jazz trumpeter Edgar “Dooky” Chase II. His parents owned a street corner stand in Treme and Chase began working in the kitchen at the restaurant.  Later on, Leah and Dooky took over the stand and converted it into a sit-down establishment and named it: Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. She eventually changed the menu to offer some of the Creole recipes she grew up with. These types of recipes, at the time, were only available in restaurants for white people, where black people were barred.

Dooky Chase’s Restaurant played an important role in the civil rights movement. Leah Chase and her restaurant have hosted Dr. King and the Freedom Riders at the restaurant for secret meetings. People in the African American community leaned on Dooky Chase for support and knew it was a safe place to go.  For instance, since there were no banks available to African Americans, Leah and Dooky would cash checks for trusted patrons at the bar every Friday. Friday nights at Dooky Chase soon became legendary, as people would cash their checks and have a poboy.

Leah Chase served famous people from all over the world, including Presidents and famous actors. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. liked barbecued ribs, while James Baldwin’s favorite was her gumbo. Nat King Cole loved a four-minute egg. She once had to stop Barack Obama from putting hot sauce in her gumbo and she fed President George W. Bush crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau.

“In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken,” she was often quoted saying.

Chef Leah Chase also published several cookbooks detailing her delicious, tried-and-true recipes:

The Dooky Chase Cookbook (1990)

And I Still Cook (2003)

Down Home Healthy : Family Recipes of Black American Chefs (1994)

Princess Tiana, the first black princess featured in a Disney movie and the waitress who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated feature “The Princess and the Frog,” was based on Mrs. Leah Chase.

Mrs. Chase had intellectual curiosity, a deep religious conviction and always tried to lift others up, which would make her a central cultural figure in both the politics of New Orleans and the national struggle for civil rights.

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