Chef Leah Chase, the legendary creole chef and cookbook author, passed away June 1 at the age of 96. Chase passed away at her son’s home near her restaurant in New Orleans, her daughter Stella Reese Chase told the New York Times.
Over the past seven decades, Chase’s cooking has fed presidents, freedom riders, and celebrities. Even though she was born in the deep South in the time of segregation, Chase’s family pushed her to complete her schooling. She finished high school at the age of 16 while living with her aunt in New Orleans. At 18, Chase took her first job in a restaurant in the French Quarter.
Without any formal cooking training, Chase became a champion of creole cuisine. Chase married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., the son of Dooky Chase’s founder, in 1945. She helped to run the restaurant after her father-in-law fell ill in 1952.
“I thought I was going to be the little hostess out front,” Chase told the New York Times in 1990. “But there was nobody cooking, so I landed in the kitchen.”
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant opened in 1941 as a po’ boy shop and lottery stand. Using the knowledge she had learned from working in other French Quarter restaurants, Chase transformed Dooky Chase’s into a destination eatery for those searching for elevated creole cuisine.
Chase’s signature dishes range from trout amandine and classic gumbo—which she once stopped Barack Obama from putting hot sauce on while he was campaigning in 2008—to jambalaya and red beans and rice—a favorite of singer Ray Charles.
“In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken,” she would often say, according to the New York Times Southern correspondent Kim Severson.
Chase’s reach extended beyond the kitchen. She became a central figure of the Civil Rights movement. The restaurant became a meeting place for leaders and activists.
“She is of a generation of African-American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back,” Jessica B. Harris, an author and expert on food of the African diaspora, told the New York Times.
While Chase believed she was just feeding people, many remember she had many contributions that helped shape the movement. In the time of segregation led Jim Crow laws, she created a safe space for African-Americans to meet. The late Rudy Lombard, a civil rights activist who helped stage the sit-in at the Canal Street lunch counter, told The Advocate, “If you’re looking for a place that advanced integration and racial understanding, nothing stands out for me more than that restaurant and that lady.”
“It was the only place where people knew blacks and whites could get together in a civil rights context without being hassled,” Lombard said. “(The police) knew what was going on; they were following us—but nothing ever happened to us there.”
Even as Chase approached the later stages of life, she always found her way back to the restaurant. Her presence at Dooky Chase’s could be felt through her food and as she made rounds around the dining room meeting guests.
“It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have accomplished something, like I have performed service to someone else,” she told The Advocate. “When people come back and tell me they remember something I told them, that makes me so happy. I stuck with them in some way.”
Chase is survived by a son, Edgar Chase III; two daughters, Leah Chase Kamata and Stella Chase Reese; as well as siblings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.