Imagine being more famous than the most famous of chefs, who often visited for cooking lessons and to touch the hem of your chef’s coat. Imagine having fed some of the most notable names in United States history, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Quincy Jones, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, and Ray Charles. Imagine having to rebuild your life and life’s work after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in your eighties. You can imagine much more and still not have the words to describe or define the inimitable Leah Chase. She was one of a kind. She was royalty. Travelers and tourists made special stops at Dooky Chase, the New Orleans restaurant bearing her father-in-law’s name to eat her food, and with the hope of an audience with the “Queen of Creole Cuisine.” Today, many are feeling blessed to have had the Queen’s food and to have made her warm acquaintance.
Queen Leah’s beginnings were humble, which explains the common touch she possessed when dealing with the famous, infamous, and regular folk who crossed her restaurant’s threshold. She told the Associated Press, “I love people and I love serving people. It’s fun for me to serve people. Because sometimes people will come in and they’re tired. And just a little plate of food will make people happy.”
Born in New Orleans in 1923, Leah Lange Chase – one of 11 children – was raised in rural Madisonville, Louisiana, and returned to ‘The Big Easy’ as a child to complete her schooling. She could boast of being the manager of two boxers, and the first woman to mark the horserace board for a bookie, two very non-traditional jobs. However, her life took a turn when she worked as a waitress in a toney French Quarter restaurant, where she was introduced to the concept of fine-dining. The discovery would come in handy when she and husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., took over his parents’ tavern turned sit-down restaurant in the Tremé -district. In segregated New Orleans, Dooky Chase was an anomaly; the rare place where blacks and whites could sup together for the purpose of business or politics without breaking the law.
Without fear of losing business or being harassed, the Chases served Leah’s food to activists during the Civil Rights Movement right in the dining room. According to the restaurant’s site, “Black voter registration campaign organizers, the NAACP, backdoor political meetings and countless others often found a home at Dooky Chase’s, and Leah cooked for them all.” Leah Chase’s political activism resulted in a number of prestigious honors from the NAACP, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National Council of Negro Women. In 2012, the Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation was formed to support the arts, education and social justice.
She was also a lifelong matron of the arts with an extensive and impressive art collection that was often showcased on the walls of Dooky Chase. Her indelible eye for emerging talent garnered a seat on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts. Ever the advocate, she testified before Congress to petition more funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Chef Chase received honorary degrees from Tulane University, Dillard University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, Loyola University New Orleans, and Johnson & Wales University. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana named a permanent gallery in her honor in 2009. And she received honors over the years from the James Beard Foundation and Southern Foodways Alliance.
Her cookbooks, The Dooky Chase Cookbook and And Still I Cook are considered Creole culinary canon.
Leah Chase was the inspiration for the main character Tiana in the 2009 Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog.
Yet for all of the accolades and honors, the most important thing to Leah Chase was family. She and Edgar Jr. had four children, Emily, Stella, Edgar “Dooky” III and Leah. Dooky Chase began as a family-owned business and continued beyond the death of Edgar Jr. in 2016. Leah and Edgar had been married for over six decades.
On June 1, 2019, we imagine she joined him, handing him a bowl of her shrimp Creole.