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Leah Chase (1923–2019), New Orleans chef perfected Creole cuisine

by Linnea Crowther

Leah Chase was the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” the owner of the legendary Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans who fed presidents and made space for civil rights leaders to meet and plan the movement. She and her husband, jazz trumpeter Edgar “Dooky” Chase, took over his parents’ sandwich and lottery shop in the Treme neighborhood, and she used her background of working in French Quarter restaurants to build it up into a fine dining establishment for the black community in the days when New Orleans was still segregated. Dooky Chase was a popular gathering place whose prominent customers included the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles wrote it into his song “Early Morning Blues.” Credited with perfecting Creole cuisine, Chase was honored with the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, and Food & Wine magazine named Dooky Chase one of their 40 most important restaurants of the past 40 years. Chase was also an avid art collector with a notable collection of art by African-American artists, and her own portrait by Gustave Blache III hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

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Died: June 1, 2019 (Who else died on June 1?)


Details of death: Died at her son’s home in New Orleans at the age of 96.

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After Hurricane Katrina: When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Dooky Chase was among the buildings that flooded. Chase and her husband spent a year and a half living in a FEMA trailer, but she was determined to reopen after the floodwaters receded. After holding a wildly successful fundraiser, they were able to reopen in 2007, operating during limited hours as Chase continued to cook into her 90s. The limited hours didn’t affect the legendary status of Dooky Chase — after Katrina, Chase’s customers included Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Remembering an icon: Two days after Chase’s death, a “pop up” second-line parade took to the streets of New Orleans in her honor. Organized by members of the Big 6 Brass Band, the jazz funeral wound through Dooky Chase’s neighborhood as participants and onlookers joyfully celebrated Chase’s life. Chase’s son Edgar, who watched the parade from his front porch, said his mother would have loved it, and she “would’ve been right there waving to everybody.” A public viewing for Chase will take place June 8, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at Xavier University Convocation Center, followed by a celebratory program at 6 p.m. All are invited to attend. —Read more in the New Orleans Advocate

Notable quote: “In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.”

What people said about her: “What a life. American history has always been driven by visionaries like Leah Chase—and all the men and women who worked and ate at Dooky Chase’s over the years—folks who serve up progress one bowl of gumbo at a time.” —Former President Barack Obama

“In these desegregated times it’s hard to imagine what it meant for Leah Chase to try to create a fancy restaurant for Black people. Even in the days when my parents were courting, Black people had Little League championship teams, college graduations and date nights with special people. Dooky Chase’s was the place you went to for those occasions at the time when Galatoire’s and Antoine’s didn’t serve ‘colored.’” —Author and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie

“Leah Chase was a legend, an icon and an inspiration. It is impossible to overstate what she meant to our City and to our community. At Dooky Chase’s Restaurant: she made creole cuisine the cultural force that it is today.” —New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell

“We can’t talk about Civil Rights in this country without recognizing Leah Chase’s contributions. In her way, she sustained a movement and will forever be remembered not only as the matriarch of Creole cuisine, but as a freedom icon.” —U.S. Senator Cory Booker

“For us home folks, Ms. Leah Chase was simply a strong woman who knew how to stir things right.” —Donna Brazile, former interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee

“Leah Chase was a national treasure. Civil rights leader, rebel, chef, activist, leader, icon, incredible human. What a massive loss to the world. Love to her family and to New Orleans.” —Food & Wine senior editor Kat Kinsman

“Saddened to learn of the passing of Leah Chase. I was with her family earlier this year and I send them my deepest condolences. They spoke of her civil rights activism, love of family, and passion for food. The Queen of Creole Cuisine will be dearly missed.” —U.S. Senator Kamala Harris

“Leah Chase was a New Orleans treasure… That smile… just thinking, I never once remember seeing her without it. She was a queen of creole cuisine… but I’ll remember her hugs… she hugged you the way your mom would. New Orleans will never be the same.” —Hoda Kotb, “Today” show co-anchor

Full obituary: Times-Picayune

Birthdate: January 6, 1923 (Who else was born January 6?)

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