Leah Chase, The 'Queen Of Creole Cuisine,' Dies At 96

Jun 2, 2019
Originally published on June 4, 2019 11:52 am

Leah Chase, the New Orleans chef known for her legendary Creole cuisine and for her role as a pioneer of the civil rights era, died on Saturday at the age of 96.

As executive chef and co-owner of Dooky Chase's restaurant, Chase made the eatery a hub for the African American community of New Orleans and a meeting place for organizers of the civil rights movement.

Chase married into the restaurant in 1946 and transformed it from a casual sandwich shop into a refined dining establishment. She had previously worked as a waitress in the city's French Quarter, where some of the restaurants were expensive and for whites only.

At the time, restaurants were segregated in New Orleans, and it was illegal for blacks and whites to eat in restaurants together. At Dooky Chase's, whites and blacks ate together all the time, and it became a gathering place for politicians, artists and civil rights leaders.

In 2015, Chase spoke with NPR's Debbie Elliot. She said, "See blacks had nothing, nothing at all. No nice places. A little corner shop, or little something, but I saw on the other side of town, those nice restaurants, I said, how come we can't have that? A space where people can dress nice and feel comfortable sitting down, taking your time."

Under her leadership, the restaurant evolved into an upscale destination, with meals that reflected the city's Creole heritage and Spanish, French and African culinary influences.

Jessica Harris, a scholar and writer who was close to Chase, told NPR, "In the bad old days when African Americans could not eat elsewhere, that was the place they ate. That was the place they could eat, and it was the place they did eat.

"She fed the Freedom Riders. She would give them a meal before they headed out. It was one of the few places in the city of New Orleans where blacks and whites came together, sometimes clandestinely, and damn near illegally."

Martin Luther King Jr., Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Nat King Cole and Ray Charles were just some of the famous guests who dined at Chase's restaurant.

Chase told NPR, "We fed Duke Ellington. Lena Horne became my good friend. Sarah Vaughn became my good friend. They were good, good people. We fed everyone."

Chase visited the restaurant and supervised the kitchen well into her 90s.

In a statement given to NPR, Chase's family said she wanted Dooky Chase's restaurant to serve as a "vehicle for social change during a difficult time in our country's history." They said she "treasured all of her customers and was honored to have the privilege to meet and serve them."

"Mrs. Chase was a strong and selfless matriarch," the statement read. "Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together. One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity."

Correction: 6/02/19

In a previous Web version of this story, a quote from scholar Jessica Harris was misattributed to the late chef, Leah Chase. It was Harris who told NPR that "In the bad old days when African Americans could not eat elsewhere," they ate at Chase's New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase's.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Now a moment to remember the queen of Creole cuisine, chef, restauranteur and civil rights activist Leah Chase. She died yesterday at the age of 96. She was co-owner of the notable New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase. It was first established in the Tremaine neighborhood during World War II by the woman who'd become her mother-in-law. After Leah Chase married into the family in 1946, she quickly recognized its potential as a hub for the city's African American community. Here's what she told NPR's Debbie Elliott during an interview a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEAH CHASE: See, blacks had nothing. They had nothing at all - no nice places. It was a little corner shop, a little something. But I thought, on the other side of town, there was nice restaurants. I said, why we can't have that - a space where people can dress nice and feel comfortable sitting down, taking your time?

GONYEA: Under her leadership, Dooky Chase transformed into an upscale space where politicians, artists and leaders of the civil rights movement could enjoy good service and a good meal - dishes like chicken Creole, gumbo and trout amandine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHASE: In the bad old days when African Americans could not eat elsewhere, that was the place they ate. That was the place they could eat. And it was the place they did eat.

GONYEA: Jessica Harris is a food historian and longtime friend of Leah Chase.

JESSICA HARRIS: She fed the Freedom Riders. She would give them a meal before they headed out. It was one of the few places in the city of New Orleans where blacks and whites came together, sometimes virtually clandestinely and damn near illegally.

GONYEA: Martin Luther King Jr. ate at Dooky Chase, so did future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and singer Ray Charles, who included the restaurant in a song. The list of famous diners goes on and on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHASE: We fed Duke Ellington. Lena Horne became my good friend. Sarah Vaughan became my good friend. They were good, good people. We fed everybody. I fed the Jackson 5s till they were about 14, 15 years old.

GONYEA: Leah Chase said she simply loved people, and she continued to work well into her 90s. And yesterday, as they announced her death, Chase's family vowed to continue her legacy of work, pray and do for others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY IN THE MORNING")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) I went to Dooky Chase to get something to eat. The waitress looked at me and said, Ray, you sure look beat. And it's early in the morning... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.