It has become common practice to baptize one and all as “icons” and “activists.” Leah Chase, the legendary chef of New Orleans’s famed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, was indeed both at a time before today’s reduction of the terms. Chase, who died on June 1 at the age of 96, quietly changed the culinary and political culture of New Orleans with her work, leaving behind a rich legacy of African American innovation and civil-rights leadership. I met Chase for the first time more than 25 years ago, and always reveled in her company. She had an insatiable curiosity about food, and loved to go to the city’s new restaurants as soon as they opened. There is a hole in the fabric of New Orleans, but it is smaller than the one in my heart.
Leah Chase (née Lange) was born in the countryside of Madisonville, Louisiana, on January 6, 1923. The childhood stories she shared about her family, their vegetable-garden plot, and the table where they communed for daily meals demonstrated the influence that her upbringing had on her cooking career. She was someone for whom fresh, local, and seasonal were not buzzwords, but rather ways of life.
The vicissitudes of the segregated South meant that Chase’s town had no schools for black children that went beyond the sixth grade, so she was sent to New Orleans to complete her education. There, a new world opened up to her. Following her graduation from high school at age 16, Chase worked briefly as a seamstress doing piecework, but the job proved stultifying to her nimble mind. Eventually, she found her way into the food-service industry as a waitress. The restaurant business would later become her lifelong love.
In 1945, she met and married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a trumpeter and bandleader. His family owned a small sandwich shop in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, which would become the springboard that she needed. Gradually, she transformed the place into a fine-dining establishment that provided the city’s black community with all the amenities that were available in the white restaurants they were banned from: fine china, heavy napery, crystal glasses, and a menu that reflected African American tastes (such as her rich seafood gumbo and garlicky shrimp Clemenceau). Dooky Chase’s first appeared in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1948.
The restaurant was a linchpin of black New Orleans life, where very special dates were brought, fraternity and sorority luncheons and dinners were held, and graduations were celebrated. It also became a centerpiece for the changes that were taking place in the city and around the country. When the Freedom Riders were setting off on their perilous journeys, they often went fortified by a meal from Chase’s kitchen. And when they returned beaten and bloodied, they were again soothed by her fare. She served the heroes of the civil-rights movement, such as Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Sr., and Martin Luther King Jr.; the local activist Oretha Castle Haley worked in the restaurant; and an upstairs room of the establishment became the meeting place for black and white political strategists at a time when racial mixing was illegal in the city. Chase’s impeccable reputation (and that of the restaurant) made Dooky Chase’s unassailable.
Edgar Chase was an impresario who presented the first desegregated concert in New Orleans. So when black musicians came to town, they went to Dooky Chase’s. The restaurant’s three dining rooms had walls adorned with black paintings and photographs, and it still houses one of the major collections of African American art in the city. The list of those who placed their feet under Leah Chase’s tables crosses generations: Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole, the Jackson 5, Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Quincy Jones had a standing food order to be express mailed to him, and Ray Charles immortalized the restaurant in his version of the song “Early in the Morning.” Chase famously chided then–presidential candidate Barack Obama for adding hot sauce to her gumbo.
Notables came, but so did everyday people who appreciated the cuisine she served up with love and attention—everyone was a star to Chase. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, Dooky Chase’s was almost lost. But through Chase’s personal grit, and with the help of family, friends, and public fundraisers, the art was rescued and the dining room and kitchens were restored. Chase got back to her business of bringing the world together at the table through food, and she kept at it until her death.