New Orleans legend, chef, and civil rights activist Leah Chase gave her community more than food: as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah instilled a sense of pride in what is uniquely New Orleans food, hospitality, art, and activism. She passed away on June 1, 2019 at the age of 96, and Leah’s legacy stands as a reminder that chefs can brighten communities in ways beyond serving up plates of inventive cuisine.
Leah found her love for feeding others while waiting tables in the French Quarter of New Orleans shortly after attending high school. Marrying local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. in 1946, Leah joined into Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, transforming it from a street-side stand where she sold her po’boys into a sit-down restaurant and gathering place.
Located in Treme, a historically African American neighborhood, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant challenged the status quo: while restaurants in New Orleans were segregated at the time, at Dooky Chase’s, people of all races came together for Leah’s classic Creole dishes. And under Leah’s leadership, the sit-down restaurant provided a special, upscale, and more comfortable dining experience for the African American community, at a time when segregation limited them to corner shops and smaller, more casual eating places.
The way Leah reflected inclusion, warmth, and New Orleans’s Creole heritage attracted entertainers, politicians, and civil rights activists like the Freedom Riders, whom Leah fed before they set out across the southern United States in 1961. Leah also served her signature dishes—including barbecued ribs, gumbo, jambalaya, and trout amandine—to icons like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who each relied on the restaurant as a safe meeting place.
“In New Orleans, you don’t do anything without eating,” Leah told New Orleans’s the Gambit in 2016. “So they would come here and I would make gumbo and fried chicken, and they’d have lunch and plan their moves. Sometimes it was hard and sometimes it was frightening, because you didn’t know who was going to come back and who wasn’t.”
Although Leah also fed artists and musicians like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, her contributions to African American art stems from her personal collection, displayed on the walls of the restaurant and considered New Orleans’ best collection of African American art. Leah also served on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts and testified before Congress in support of the National Endowment for the Arts.
When Hurricane Katrina wrecked Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in 2005, Leah and her husband lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer across the street, determined to reopen for the civic responsibility they felt as leaders of a New Orleans institution. It took the couple two years of persistence to raise money and rebuild, with the help of their supportive New Orleans community.
“We’ve come a long way but I think people need to do better about coming together and understanding one another,” said Leah. “If you get to a certain place where you’re on your feet, then you got to help somebody else on their feet. Whatever I can do, I try to do it. You have to get involved today, honey. Everybody has to make a difference.”
For the last seven decades, and even into her 90s, Leah maintained a daily presence in the Dooky Chase’s Restaurant kitchen as the Executive Chef. Her culinary legacy carries on in her cookbooks like The Dooky Chase Cookbook and And Still I Cook.
Leah’s ability to bring people together over Creole food earned her numerous recognitions and awards like the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1997 Loving Cup Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women. Leah also received multiple awards from the NAACP and joined the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010. In 2016, James Beard awarded Leah the Lifetime Achievement Award, naming her the first African American to receive the honor.
Photo courtesy of Dooky Chase Restaurant.