In New Orleans, Leah Chase has been lauded as a leader, an inspiration, even an emblem of her city’s better self.
But through it all she has remained a chef, forever directing her staff and greeting her guests, her hands always busy preparing the trinity, stirring the gumbo.
Now, finally, those hands are still.
Chase died Saturday, surrounded by her family, according to a family spokesperson.
She was 96.
Chase was an icon of the civil-rights movement, a patron of the arts and a mentor. Her family knew her as a matriarch with high standards and deep affection. And she was always and forever known for her way with New Orleans food.
Defying age, she continued to cook at her restaurant until practically the very end.
That restaurant is Dooky Chase’s, the Orleans Avenue institution that started as a black family’s humble barroom in segregated New Orleans and grew into a landmark that would transcend the normal bounds of hospitality.
“Food builds big bridges,” Chase said in a 2018 interview. “If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together.”
Enduring flavor, lasting legacy
In later years, Dooky Chase’s has continued to draw throngs of loyal customers and earnest well-wishers, from tourists with culinary bucket lists to U.S. presidents paying their respects (including one, Barack Obama, whom Chase chided for his preemptive use of hot sauce in her gumbo).
Long after many others would have retired, Chase maintained her hands-on role in the daily rhythm of her family restaurant. She lived in a small adjacent home and could be found in the restaurant kitchen early each day, chopping and prepping the fundamentals of its classic Creole menu.
“When I wake up in the morning, I don’t ask God what I want anymore, I tell him,” she once said. “I say ‘I want to go out and work.’ Then I go home at the end and say, ‘Thank you, God.’”
Work was a compulsion for Chase. Her tenacity, combined with the courage to chart unconventional and sometimes controversial courses, left a lasting mark on the worlds of New Orleans food, culture, art and politics.
“She is of a generation of African-American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back,” said Jessica Harris, an author and expert on food of the African diaspora, in a 2012 interview.
“It’s a work ethic, yes, but it’s also seeing how you want things to be and then being relentless about getting there,” Harris said. “It’s about making sure it gets done and making sure that your hand is doing its part.”
Roots and journey
Born on Jan. 6 — Twelfth Night — in 1923, the oldest of 11 children of Hortensia and Charles Lange, Leah Chase was raised across Lake Pontchartrain in Madisonville, then a small shipping and boat-building town along the Tchefuncte River.
Her father, initially a ship caulker, later had a WPA job during the Great Depression, working for 50 cents a day.
“Father told us to pray for work everyday,” Chase once recalled in an interview. “We’d go fishing in the mornings so we could have perch and grits for breakfast, but a lot of times, man, it was just grits.”
Because there was no nearby high school for black students at the time, Chase left home for New Orleans at age 13. She lived with an aunt while attending St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic school for black girls in the city. She returned home to Madisonville after graduating at age 16, but two years later returned to New Orleans for good.
She once said she envisioned working in a sewing factory in the city, which she said was considered “a good job for Creole girls like me.”
But history intervened in her career early on. New Orleans was gearing up for World War II when Chase arrived in 1941, and as more men were called up for the military, women — regardless of their race — were getting jobs that had previously been closed to them.
Chase started waiting tables at the long-since-closed Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter, a job she later called “one of the best things that could have happened.”
“I saw just how wonderful the restaurant business was, how you could sit down and enjoy a meal and have someone serve you,” Chase said. “Oh, I thought, that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
She would try out different jobs, including stints working for a bookie and even managing a few local boxers. The allure of restaurants always captivated her, however, and her big break in the business came with her marriage in 1946 to Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, a trumpet player.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was first opened in 1941 by his parents, the late Emily Tenette Chase and Edgar “Dooky” Chase Sr. At the time, the family business was a tavern built in a double shotgun and bankrolled by a $600 loan from a local brewery. It served po-boys, sold lottery tickets and kept late hours at the corner of Orleans Avenue and North Miro Street.
As Leah Chase took on more responsibility, she drew on her earlier experiences in the French Quarter and began changing the neighborhood joint into a destination restaurant. It became a special place for important dinners, first dates and social gatherings in the black community.