Leah Chase

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Leah Chase
Leah Chase in April 2008
Born (1923-01-06) January 6, 1923 (age 95)
Madisonville, Louisiana
United States
EducationColonial Restaurant
French Quarter, New Orleans
United States
Culinary career
Cooking styleCreole

Leah Chase (born January 6, 1923) is a New Orleans chef, author and television personality. She is known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, and she advocates both African-American art and Creole cooking. Her restaurant, Dooky Chase, was known as a gathering place during the 1960s among many who participated in the Civil Rights Movement,[1] and was known as a gallery due to its extensive African-American art collection.

Chase has been the recipient of a multitude of awards and honors. In her 2002 biography, Chase's awards and honors occupy over two pages.[2] Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010.[3] She was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2000.[4] Chase received honorary degrees from Tulane University, Dillard University,[5][6] Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College,[7] Loyola University New Orleans,[8] and Johnson & Wales University. She was awarded Times-Picayune Loving Cup Award in 1997.[9][10] The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana named a permanent gallery in Chase's honor in 2009.[2]

Early life[edit]

Leah Chase was born to Catholic Creole parents in New Orleans and grew up Madisonville, Louisiana. Chase's father was a caulker at the Jahncke Shipyard and her grandmother was a registered nurse and midwife.[11] Chase was one of 11 children.[11] She was six when the Great Depression struck and later recollected surviving on produce they grew themselves—okra, peas, greens—and clothes made of sacks that had held rice and flour.[11] The children helped cultivate the land, especially on the 20-acre strawberry farm her father's family owned, which Chase describes as forming an integral part of her 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.[11]

Madisonville, a segregated town, did not have a Catholic high school for black children, so Chase moved to New Orleans to live with relatives and pursue a Catholic education at St. Mary's Academy.[11]

Leah Chase's roots are heavily centered in Louisiana, with only one great-grandparent born elsewhere. Her heritage is multicultural, including African American, Spanish, and French. Her ancestors include one of the first African Americans to serve in the Louisiana state House of Representatives (1868-1870).[12]

Early career[edit]

After high school, Chase held many jobs including managing two amateur boxers and became the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Chase's favorite job was working as a waitress at the Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Dooky Chase[edit]

In 1946, she married musician Edgar "Dooky" Chase II. His parents owned a street corner stand in Treme, founded in 1941, that sold lottery tickets and homemade po-boy sandwiches.[13] Chase began working in the kitchen at the restaurant during the 1950s, and over time, Leah and Dooky took over the stand and converted it into a sit-down establishment. She eventually updated the menu to reflect her own family's Creole recipes as well as recipes—Shrimp Clemenceau—otherwise available only in whites-only establishments from which she and her patrons were barred.[14]

Civil Rights movement[edit]

During the 1960s Dooky Chase became one of the only public places in New Orleans where African Americans could meet and discuss strategies during the Civil Rights movement. Local Civil Rights leaders such as A.P. Tureaud and Ernest "Dutch" Morial, would commonly meet at Dooky Chase for secret discussions. Leah Chase would later house the secret meetings and strategy discussions for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders. They would hold meetings and strategy discussions in her upstairs meeting rooms while she served them gumbo and fried chicken.[1] Leah Chase's restaurant was key when King and the Freedom Riders came to learn from the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. As King and the Freedom Riders were beginning to organize their bus boycott in Montgomery, they would hold meetings with civil leaders from New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Dooky Chase's meeting rooms to learn about the bus boycotts in Baton Rouge. The plan and organization of the Montgomery bus boycotts were inspired by the boycotts in Baton Rouge. Dooky Chase became so popular that even though local officials knew about these "illegal" meetings, the city or local law enforcement could not stop them or shut the doors of Dooky Chase because of the risk of public backlash.[15]

Dooky Chase became a staple in the black communities of New Orleans. Leah Chase and her husband Edgar "Dooky" Chase would host black voter registration campaign organizers, the NAACP, black political meetings and many other civil leaders at their restaurant. While there were no black-owned banks in African-American communities, people would commonly go to Dooky Chase on Fridays, where Leah Chase and her husband would cash checks for trusted patrons at the bar. Friday nights became popular at Dooky Chase where people would cash their checks, have a drink, and order a po-boy.[16]

Dooky Chase's Restaurant with flood lines still visible, May 2006.

Art collection[edit]

Chase also developed an interest in African-American art and began to display dozens of paintings and sculptures by African-American artists like Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett,[14] as well as hired local musicians to play in her bar.[17]

Hurricane Katrina[edit]

Dooky Chase's 6th Ward of New Orleans location was flooded by Hurricane Katrina and was not scheduled to reopen until the summer of 2006. To save Chase's African-American art collection from damage, her grandson placed the art collection in storage. The New Orleans restaurant community got together on April 14, 2006 (Holy Thursday) to hold a benefit,[18] charging $75 to $500 per person for a gumbo z'herbes, fried chicken, and bread pudding lunch at a posh French Quarter restaurant. The guests consumed 50 gallons of gumbo and raised $40,000 for the 82-year-old Mrs. Chase. Dooky Chase restaurant was scheduled to open April 5, 2007.[citation needed] It opened mostly for take-out and special events because of a shortage of trained waitstaff.

Reopening and accolades[edit]

Since reopening the doors of Dooky Chase, Leah Chase has fed her creole cuisine to many important figures including both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Later known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, Leah Chase has won many awards and achievements in her lifetime. She was awarded "Best Fried Chicken in New Orleans" by NOLA.com in 2014.[19] Leah Chase has received the James Beard Lifetime Achievement in 2016 for her lifetime's body of work that has had a positive and the long lasting impact on the way people ate, cooked and thought about food in New Orleans.[20] Many world renowned chefs, such as John Besh and Emeril Lagasse, have honored Leah Chase and credited her with perfecting creole cuisine. Leah Chase has fed many celebrities, politicians and activist such as Ray Charles, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, and many other prominent figures in the African-American community. Charles would sing in his song "Early Morning Blues" about waking up and going to Dooky Chase to get something to eat.[21]

Operating under limited hours since Hurricane Katrina, Dooky Chase has always been busy while open. From Tuesday to Fridays from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. people would have lines formed outside of the restaurant, sometimes wrapping around the corner. Chase has expressed her concerns about the future of her restaurant since giving control of the business to family. Chase envisions her restaurant as a modern version of what it once was. In a time where she would sell sandwiches and snacks from a walk-up window, the bar would be a social hub in the community again, and her restaurant would be open for lunch and dinner with an extended menu so more people could enjoy her food. According to the family of Chase, the hours of operation and limited menu are to save Leah Chase from "her own work ethic". Chase still works in the kitchen of Dooky Chase throughout all business hours and has been known to work and cook for events honoring her.[22]

In the media[edit]

In the 2012 revival of Tennessee Williams's classic New Orleans play A Streetcar Named Desire, which had an all-African-American cast, a mention of the restaurant Galatoire's (which was segregated during the play's post-war 1940s time period) was changed to a mention of Dooky Chase's Restaurant, which was integrated.[23] Leah Chase was also the inspiration for the main character Tiana in the 2009 Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog.[24] In a 2017 episode of the Travel Channel's Man v. Food, host Casey Webb visited Dooky Chase to try their famed Creole gumbo.

Chase Family Foundation[edit]

In 2013, Chase and her husband Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr. founded the Edgar "Dooky" Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation. According to their official website, The Edgar "Dooky" Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation was founded to "cultivate and support historically disenfranichised organizations by making significant contributions to education, creative and culinary arts, and social justice."[25] Having spent her life advocating for civil rights, supporting local artist and musicians, and providing original creole cuisine this foundation is an extension of her passion. Through this foundation the Chase family has hosted several fundraising events to support children's educations such as music, art and history. Their foundation has been sponosored by many local businesses and organizations such as Liberty Bank, Metro Disposal, Popeyes, Entergy New Orleans and many others.[26]

Other projects[edit]

Chase hosts a cooking show devoted to Creole cooking, and she is the author of several cookbooks.

Cookbooks by Leah Chase[edit]

  • The Dooky Chase Cookbook (1990) ISBN 0-88289-661-X
  • And I Still Cook (2003) ISBN 1-56554-823-X
  • Down Home Healthy : Family Recipes of Black American Chefs (1994) ISBN 0-16-045166-3

The Art of Leah Chase[edit]

From April 24, 2012 to September 16, 2012, the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibited Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III. The exhibition documented chef Leah Chase in the kitchen and the dining room at Dooky Chase Restaurant. Asked whether she thought the rendering was accurate, Chase, 89, said the young artist had gotten it right. "I told him, 'You could have made me look like Halle Berry or Lena Horne, but you made it look like me,'" she said.[27]

Leah Chase in the Smithsonian[edit]

Blache's painting, Cutting Squash, from the exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art was acquired for its permanent collection by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2011. "We are always looking for portraits of nationally prominent figures," National Portrait Gallery chief curator Brandon Fortune said. "It is a very interesting image of a woman at work, doing a very simple task, cutting squash...But in some ways it transcends the everyday and becomes something of national significance." Another one of the Smithsonian Institutions, National Museum of African American History and Culture, came calling for another painting of Chase from the Blache series, acquiring Leah Red Coat Stirring (Sketch) in 2013. Leah Chase is the first chef who has two portraits is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution, both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Leah Chase: Exhibition Catalogue[edit]

The catalogue for the exhibition Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III was published by Hudson Hills Press in the Fall of 2012.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ferrand, Casey (2014-07-03). "Dooky Chase's Restaurant played key role in civil rights movement". WDSU. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  2. ^ a b Judy Walker, The Times-Picayune. "The Queen of Creole Cuisine's latest honor is a museum gallery". NOLA.com. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  3. ^ "New Orleans chefs make list of James Beard food awards | wwltv.com New Orleans". Wwltv.com. 2010-03-22. Archived from the original on 2011-06-29. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  4. ^ "SFA | Hall of Fame | Lifetime Achievement Award | Leah Chase". Southernfoodways.com. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  5. ^ "New Orleans, Louisiana Local News". Nola.com. 2009-09-30. Archived from the original on 2012-09-06. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  6. ^ "Children's Defense Fund: Children's Defense Fund". Cdf.childrensdefense.org. Archived from the original on 2011-08-13. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  7. ^ New Orleans Classic Desserts – Google Books. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  8. ^ "Gov. Jindal, Guantanamo attorney to speak at 2009 Loyola commencement – Herbie Hancock to receive honorary degree – Loyola University New Orleans". Noah.loyno.edu. 2009-04-24. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  9. ^ "Loving Cup winners" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-07-29.
  10. ^ Eliot Kamenitz / The Times-Picayune. "Leah Chase selected for 1997 T-P Loving Cup". NOLA.com. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  11. ^ a b c d e Hill, Megan (2012-02-29). "Leah Chase's Hometown: Madisonville, Louisiana". Country Roads Magazine. Retrieved 2017-07-16.
  12. ^ Smolenyak, Megan. "The Louisiana Roots of Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine". Huffington Post. Retrieved September 27, 2017.
  13. ^ Grimes, William (23 November 2016). "Edgar Chase Jr., Purveyor of Creole Cuisine, Dies at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 November 2016.
  14. ^ a b Anderson, Brett (April 13, 2016). "New Orleans's Queen of Creole Cooking, at Ninety-Three". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2017-07-16.
  15. ^ "About the Chef - Dooky Chase's Restaurant". www.dookychaserestaurant.com. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  16. ^ "About Us - Dooky Chase's Restaurant". www.dookychaserestaurant.com. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  17. ^ "About the Chef - Dooky Chase's Restaurant". www.dookychaserestaurant.com. Retrieved 2016-12-05.
  18. ^ The Times-Picayune Archive (2010-04-01). "Gumbo tradition lures the Holy Thursday faithful to Dooky Chase's Restaurant". NOLA.com. Retrieved 2011-06-30.
  19. ^ "Leah Chase to be honored at Fried Chicken Festival". NOLA.com. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  20. ^ "Leah Chase: 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner". www.jamesbeard.org. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  21. ^ "Leah Chase to be honored at feast named for chef who paved the way". NOLA.com. Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  22. ^ Knapp, Gwendolyn (2016-01-04). "93-Year-Old Legend Leah Chase Thinks Dooky Chase's Restaurant Could Be Better". Eater New Orleans. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  23. ^ NPR Staff (2012-04-21). "Blair Underwood On Stanley, Stella And 'Streetcar'". NPR.com. Retrieved 2012-04-23.
  24. ^ "About the Chef - Dooky Chase's Restaurant". www.dookychaserestaurant.com.
  25. ^ "News - Dooky Chase Foundation". dookychasefoundation.org. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  26. ^ "Sponsors - Dooky Chase Foundation". dookychasefoundation.org. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  27. ^ MacCash, Doug. "Leah Chase likeness enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery". The Times-Picayune. The Times-Picayune. Retrieved 7 July 2014.
  28. ^ Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III. Hudson Hills Press. Fall 2012. ISBN 1-55595-378-6. Retrieved 7 July 2014.

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