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.