For decades now Chase was widely recognized as a cultural icon, a piece of living history, who continued working in her world renowned restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, located in the Treme section of New Orleans, until her passing.
If you were feeling down, Dooky Chase’s was the place to go. Chef Chase’s cooking would put a smile back on your face, and soon after visiting you would feel right as rain.
For it wasn’t merely the cooking. It was Chase’s personality, demeanor and mile-wide smile that warmed the coldest blues away. Dooky Chase’s was a mile marker for times gone by and for what the woman behind it endured on her road to becoming this beloved cultural figure. Whatever troubles most may face down, try walking a mile in the shoes of Leah Chase. She was an African-American female who owned a restaurant in the segregated deep South of the 1960s.
Chase was a civil rights activist, and her historic restaurant was on the front lines of the fight to secure equal rights for African Americans. It was one of the only locations in New Orleans, where white and black activists were welcomed to dine, defying the law of the day by providing a safe haven. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. would join local leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, to strategize over piping hot dishes of her famous Gumbo Z’herbes in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky’s.
“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,” said a statement from Chase’s family.
Born on January 6, 1923 in New Orleans, Chase was one of 14 children. She was raised in the small town of Madisonville, LA. There were no high schools for black children, so after sixth grade, Chase moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt. After completing high school, Chase had a colorful work history including managing two amateur boxers and becoming the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Her favorite job, though, was waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was here that she developed her love for food and feeding others.
In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose father had opened a street corner stand selling lottery tickets and his wife’s homemade po’boy sandwiches in 1939. Eventually, Leah and Dooky Jr. took over the business, which by 1941, had become a sit-down restaurant and a favorite local gathering place. Under Chef Chase’s guidance, Dooky Chase’s became one of the first African American owned and operated fine dining establishments in the United States.
She served Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, along with countless entertainers like Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. Charles even mentioned the restaurant in his song, “Early in the Morning.” Chase was the inspiration for the Princess Tiana character, Disney’s first African America princess, in the “Princess and the Frog.” Beyoncé featured a cameo of her in the video for “Lemonade,” and Chase earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016.
One of Chase’s most famous statements was, “To be a woman you have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.”
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Dooky Chase’s, but two years later Chase reopened her restaurant.
“People said well, what are you going to do at your age. There was only one thing for me to do. No matter what you do on this Earth, do it and do it well,” said Chase.
On a personal level, as someone who grew up in the border-south region of Kentucky, Leah Chase was one of the first ambassadors of New Orleans cuisine I identified back in the 1980s. Since this was before the Internet, it required quite a presence to emanate beyond certain geographic boundaries.
It was Chase’s recipes that first schooled me in how to make a roux and introduce the subtle use of heat in dishes like shrimp & Andouille gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée.
Before eventually moving to New Orleans, I sought out dining at Dooky Chase’s on early pilgrimages to the Crescent City. It was here I learned what real fried chicken was truly about, and found an appreciation for greens, okra and red beans & rice.
I am indebted to Chase’s tolerance and quiet dignity. It’s comforting to know that Ms. Chase will live on as the spiritual grand matron of N’awlins.
“In this restaurant, in some ways, we really changed the course of America, and I say we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo,” said Chase.