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.
When the restaurant first opened, New Orleans was still ruled by harsh Jim Crow laws that forbid white and black people from eating in the same establishment.
“We were trying to be accepted without hurting anybody,” Mrs. Chase said in an interview with the National Public Radio program “The Splendid Table.”
“In the ’60s, here come these young people — bam! — they would just go in there and break the door down. They were going to take chances, go to jail if they had to. We couldn’t understand that, but it worked. A lot of mistakes were made, but sometimes that’s what it takes to change a system.”
Dooky Chase’s was also the only fine dining restaurant in New Orleans that black people could eat in at the time.
“In these desegregated times it’s hard to imagine what it meant for Leah Chase to try to create a fancy restaurant for black people,” said Lolis Eric Elie, an author and filmmaker whose father was a prominent New Orleans civil rights lawyer and whose mother was a well-regarded educator.
Chase was also very dedicated to the social advancement of black people. She fed the Freedom Rider as they passed through New Orleans and often held meetings for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in her restaurant.
Many famous figures have come through the restaurants doors to be fed. Figures such as Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Former President Barack Obama, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nat King Cole have all paid a visit.
Chase believed there was no higher calling in this world than feeding people.
She spread her message through cookbooks, countless media interviews and television shows. Princess Tiana, the waitress who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated
Disney feature “The Princess and the Frog,” was based on Mrs. Chase. Tiana was the first African-American princess in a Disney movie.
“She was one of the rare individuals that you could always depend on. Anything you needed, she was always there,” said Chef Joe Randall. “When I opened my Cooking School in Savannah, she was the first to call me and offer to come and be a guest Chef at the school. In 30 years, no matter where I was, if I asked her to come and cook she was there. A true and loyal friend.”
In the recent PBS documentary “Leah Chase: The Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Chase said, “In this restaurant in some ways we really changed the course of America, and I’d say we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo.”