Leah Chase (1923 – 2019) was the Queen of Creole Cuisine, advocating for both African-American art and Creole cooking, and a central cultural figure in both the politics of New Orleans and the national struggle for Civil Rights.
Her New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, served as a meeting place for Civil Rights workers and entertainers and was visited by politicians and presidents. In the 1960s, Chase fed hungry Freedom Riders and hosted meetings of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She let a young Thurgood Marshall use her telephone to call Robert F. Kennedy even when phoned-in lunch orders were coming in.
In an interview with NPR’s program The Splendid Table, Chase said:
We were trying to be accepted without hurting anybody. In the 1960s, 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.
Gay writer James Baldwin loved her gumbo. Singer Sarah Vaughan ordered stuffed crab, and Nat King Cole always wanted a four-minute egg. When he was running for president in early 2008, Chase had to stop Barack Obama, from putting hot sauce in her gumbo, and she fed President George W. Bush crab soup on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that nearly closed her restaurant for good, an act of graciousness that generated much controversy.
In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.
Chase claimed there is no greater calling than feeding people. She spread her message through cookbooks and television shows. Princess Tiana, the waitress who wanted to have her own restaurant in the animated Disney film The Princess And The Frog (2009) was based on Chase. She was Disney Studio’s first African-American princess.
On Saturday, Chase left this world for the kitchen in the great beyond. She was 96-years-old.