At 94 years old, most people are retired and taking it easy. Head Chef Leah Chase has no intention of stopping her career as one of New Orleans’ most beloved chefs. Her soulful Creole food helped fill the stomachs of those pushing the Civil Rights Movement forward in America in the 1960s, and educated people from all walks of life on different flavors. In the process, she very well may have helped shape the culture and cuisine of the city today.
Most people think of food only as a necessity in life. When you feel hunger in your stomach, you find a solution in the form of a snack, soup, or full meal. However, ask Chef Leah Chase of New Orleans about food and you’ll soon realize that food has a lot more to offer than just satiating your hunger. Leah Chase was born in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana in 1923, and soon learned that the American South’s history of segregation extended into too many corners of life.
As the head chef of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, at the age of 94, she is going strong as a purveyor of some of the finest Creole foods you’ll find anywhere in New Orleans. One might even testify that her Creole dishes are among the finest in the world. Her career offers an inspirational story that has changed the world for so many African-Americans.
Life During Segregation
The American South, particularly prior to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, was a place of segregation. Young black children were denied access to schools in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana. African-Americans from all walks of life had to live in different neighborhoods and dine in separate restaurants from their white counterparts.
From a very young age, Leah Chase suffered the raw end of the deal on segregation. She grew up in Madisonville, LA where no schools for African-American children were available, beyond the sixth grade. She moved in with an aunt in New Orleans to attend a blacks-only high school in the city and worked a variety of jobs that set her on the path to her future.
A Love of Food, and a Vehicle for Knowledge
After high school, Chase held numerous jobs in the city, including managing two amateur boxers! However, it was her role as a waitress in the famed French Quarter that led her to become a chef. Not only did she have a love of food, but she developed a love of feeding others and a desire to extend knowledge of cuisine and opportunities to the African-American community.
When Chase first tried out popular New Orleans’ dishes of the day, such as shrimp newburg and lobster thermidor, she found that the Creole community had little knowledge of or taste for those dishes. Traditional French and Spanish food dominated the city in that day, but Chase saw an opportunity to expand the knowledge of the entire community in the city and broaden its palate at the same time.
She began to introduce traditional Creole dishes, such as jambalaya and gumbo. When it came to segregation and cuisine, she believed that: “The worst thing about segregation was that we were not allowed to learn. Look at the resources that were lost by having so many African-Americans with no knowledge. If they were given that knowledge then they could make the city work altogether.”
After marrying Dooky Chase Jr. in 1946, Leah and her husband eventually took over his father’s lottery ticket stand where Dooky’s mother sold po’ boy sandwiches. Leah would quickly work to introduce Creole dishes in the city, and lend a hand in the fight against segregation at the same time.
A Head Chef Serving the Civil Rights Movement
Troops on any battlefield are emboldened by full stomachs, and Dooky Chase Restaurant with Chef Leah Chase behind the counter became a gathering place for Civil Rights Era supporters, who were working to desegregate the state of Louisiana, and the city of New Orleans in particular. Some of the most prominent American Civil Rights activists filled their bellies and planned marches with Chef Leah Chase’s help. The list of prominent individuals to dine on her food include, but is not limited to, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Thurgood Marshall and Jesse Jackson. America’s recent Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have also dined on her food.
Today, New Orleans is the cuisine capital of America in the minds of many. Every good capital needs a leading lady, and Chase is known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” and the “Queen of Gumbo”. She is quick to note that today you can walk into many of the city’s biggest restaurants and find gumbo and jambalaya on the menu, dishes you once only found in the African-American community.
In an interview with Kreol Magazine, Chase talks about the growth and changes in the city:
“At one time you didn’t (find Creole food), you would only find that if you came into the black community. You can eat and learn. All I did was learn. When you learn about people’s food, you learn so much about them. Look at their food, look at their culture. It’s a wonderful thing. We have East Indian restaurants (in New Orleans). I like vindaloo; it’s hot, and it’s spicy! You learn much about them; then you can take it and Creolize it. It’s a wonderful thing.”
The Story Behind the Title
In a city like New Orleans, having the title “Queen of Gumbo” is important. Chase’s early childhood explains the root of such an honorable title for this head chef. Ask her about her favorite foods, and you’ll get an answer that explains her title as the Queen of Gumbo too:
“Everybody made gumbo. I came up in a small town where in the winter time people went hunting. We would make gumbo with squirrels. We used what we had. We made gumbo with the crab, sausage, chicken, brisket stew. I never knew why they did that, but it was to make more meat in the gumbo. You ate that bowl of gumbo with rice and a good glass of wine.”
Today, Chef Leah Chase remains the head chef for Dooky Chase Restaurant. At 94 years young she continues to work in the restaurant she and her husband built into an iconic mealstop in the city. Though Dooky Jr. passed away in November 2016, you’ll still find Leah Chase dishing up gumbo to fill your belly and your soul, while continuing to bring Creole cuisine to the people of New Orleans as she has, since the 1940s.