The “queen of Creole cooking,” Leah Chase has died at the age of 96. With her infectious smile and staunch commitment to civil rights, Chase became an icon in the industry but her life and work transcended cooking.
Her New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase became known as one of the first fine dining establishments for African Americans in a time of extreme segregation, a benchmark for modern Creole cooking, and a hub for civil rights activists to meet and strategize.
Born in Madisonville, Louisiana, Chase came to New Orleans at an early age, where she and her husband turned a small po’ boy shop into one of the city’s best sit-down restaurants, serving Creole dishes like shrimp Clemenceau and gumbo z’herbes. Chase defied the laws of the time, allowing both white and black activists to dine together, including members of the NCAAP and other important groups. In addition, she was known for sending nourishing food to jailed activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, along with other disenfranchised people working in the struggle for civil rights.
Among her many accolades, Chase has been awarded the James Beard Lifetime Achievement and immortalized by artists and figures like Barack Obama, who famously visited Dooky’s during his historic 2008 campaign, and Beyoncé, who honored Chase in her 2016 hit album “Lemonade.”
Chase penned several cookbooks including “The Dooky Chase Cookbook” and though she herself is gone, her restaurant and legacy remain cultural touchstones, and reminders of the past and ongoing struggle for equal rights. As Chase once said, “I like to think we changed the course of American history over a bowl of gumbo.”
The outpouring of love for Chase was felt in all corners of the food world, and beyond.
Header image courtesy of Associated Press