Chef Leah Chase, civil rights activist and legendary ‘Queen of Creole Cuisine,’ dies at age 96

Leah Chase, a prominent figure known for her trailblazing efforts during the civil rights movement and culinary mastery of Creole cuisine, passed away peacefully on Saturday at the age of 96 in New Orleans.

Chase’s life story is one of resilience and innovation during a time of intense inequality. Growing up in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, Chase faced segregation and limited opportunities for black Americans. However, she was determined to make the most of her life and career. 

After working as a server in the French Quarter, she married an accomplished jazz musician, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. Together, they transformed his father’s sandwich shop into an elegant Creole restaurant and art gallery. Their success was remarkable, especially considering that few black-owned businesses existed at the time. Through hard work and creativity, Chase and her husband became trailblazers in their community, paving the way for future generations of African American entrepreneurs.

New Orleans is a city known for its melting pot of cultures, and nowhere is that more apparent than in its unique cuisine. Mrs. Chase saw an opportunity to bring the classic Creole dishes that were typically only found in family kitchens to a wider audience, and her decision paid off. Her mastery of the cuisine, which draws inspiration from French, Spanish and African cooking, helped her to gain a reputation as an expert in the field. As visitors to the city explore its rich history and culture, they owe it to themselves to indulge in the diverse flavors that Mrs. Chase helped to popularize.

Mrs. Chase’s establishment was more than just a restaurant. It was a safe space in a time of deeply entrenched segregation. Her husband’s work with the NAACP ensured that black and white activists could come together and share a meal without fear of retribution. It quickly became a favorite spot for civil rights luminaries, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, who recognized the importance of places like Mrs. Chase’s. Even with threats of violence and hateful letters, the sense of interracial friendship was palpable. The popularity of the restaurant among white patrons also acted as a deterrent to city officials who might have wanted to shut it down. In a time of great tension and uncertainty, Mrs. Chase’s restaurant was a beacon of hope and progress.

In New Orleans, it’s important to eat before making any big moves, according to Mrs. Chase. Her job was simply to feed people, but what an important job it was. As she whipped up delicious gumbo and fried chicken, her customers would plan their next steps, fueled and ready to take on whatever challenges lay ahead. It wasn’t always an easy task, though. Mrs. Chase admits that sometimes it was scary, not knowing who would return and who wouldn’t. But despite the challenges, she persevered, ensuring that her customers never went hungry.

Leah Lange’s childhood in Madisonville, Louisiana was filled with vibrant flavors and the bustle of a large family. As the oldest of 11 siblings, Leah was not only responsible for helping her shipyard-worker father and mother keep order, but also for learning the family’s culinary secrets. 

Her mother instilled in her a love of the land, teaching her how to make strawberry wine from their own strawberry patch, and even showing her how to cook up a delicious stewed quail made from the birds that raided their garden. Growing up in a family of avid hunters and food lovers, Leah’s passion for Southern cuisine and her determination to succeed in the culinary world only grew stronger with time.

Dooky Chase’s is not only known for its delicious food and its role in the civil rights movement but also for attracting some of the biggest names in music. Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles are just a few artists who became part of the restaurant’s enthusiastic clientele. So passionate were they about the food, that Ray Charles even referenced Dooky Chase’s in his song “Early in the Morning Blues.” But that wasn’t all.

Midway through her career, Leah Chase also became immersed in the art scene. She had a keen eye for African-American artists and began collecting paintings from renowned artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and John T. Biggers, which she proudly displayed in her restaurant.  With so much history and culture, it’s no wonder that Dooky Chase’s has become an icon in New Orleans and beyond.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in the history of the United States. It affected millions of people in different ways, and among them was Leah Chase, the chef and owner of New Orleans’ legendary Dooky Chase’s restaurant. Chase and her family faced a considerable setback when their restaurant and home flooded in 2005. But they didn’t give up. Instead, the family lived in a FEMA trailer and worked tirelessly to rebuild their business. One thing that Leah was especially grateful for was that her grandson managed to save her art collection. With determination and hard work, eighteen months later, Dooky Chase’s restaurant was back open. But perhaps what caught people’s attention was Leah Chase’s decision to host President George W. Bush, who visited the restaurant on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, two years after the storm hit. Despite some eyebrows being raised, Chase had her own reasons for doing so, and it showed the strength and resilience of New Orleans and its people.

For more than a decade, Leah Chase remained a fixture in the kitchen and dining room at Dooky Chase’s, using a walker in her later years. Despite her age, she never lost her love for serving people and providing them with the comfort of good food. To her, it was a joy to make someone’s day with just a small plate of food. Perhaps it was the simple act of satisfying someone’s hunger or providing them with a space where they felt welcomed and appreciated. Whatever it was, Leah Chase found happiness in it, and her legacy will continue to inspire others to find joy in serving their community.

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