NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Leah Chase, the matriarch and chef of the famed Dooky Chase Restaurant passed away Saturday (June 1), according to a representative for the family. She was 96 years old.
Mrs. Chase’s family released the following statement Saturday night:
"The Chase family is heartbroken to share the news that our Mother, Grandmother and Great Grandmother, Leah Chase, passed away surrounded by her family on June 1, 2019. Leah Chase, lovingly referred to as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, was the executive chef and co-owner of the historic and legendary Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. She was a major supporter of cultural and visual arts and an unwavering advocate for civil liberties and full inclusion of all. She was a proud entrepreneur, a believer in the Spirit of New Orleans and the good will of all people, and an extraordinary woman of faith.
Mrs. Chase was a strong and selfless matriarch. Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together. One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity. She saw her role and that of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to serve as a vehicle for social change during a difficult time in our country’s history. Throughout her tenure, Leah treasured all of her customers and was honored to have the privilege to meet and serve them.
While we mourn her loss, we celebrate her remarkable life, and cherish the life lessons she taught us. The Family will continue her legacy of “Work, Pray, and Do for Others.”
Chase was at her best stirring the pot in the kitchen of her bustling Treme restaurant.
She took a love for New Orleans and its food and a love for her family to heights she never imagined.
“You can not go any place unless you know where you came from,” said Chase.
Leah Chase was born in Madisonville on January 6, 1923. She was one of 14 children.
“My mother had 12 girls before she had a boy. So, there was nothing they told us we could not do.”
She worked hard. Life was simple.
“When I was a little girl, I had to pick strawberries, come home, get cleaned up, go to school, come back, work more.”
For high school, Chase was sent to live with her aunt in New Orleans. While in New Orleans, she attended St. Mary’s Academy. After graduation, she returned to Mandisonville.
But as she got older, she decided she wanted more.
“I went to work as a waitress in the French Quarter. I learned the business in the French Quarter. It was amazing to me to see how people eat, how you serve them, what you did.”
Little did she know the knowledge would be a foundation for her life’s work.
“That’s what food can do to everybody, it’s uplifting and that’s all I tried to do. Uplift people.”
She married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. in 1947.
“Everybody said it wasn’t going to work because I was 23 and Dooky was 18. But it worked. It worked. We learned to live together. We learned to raise our children together. And it worked.”
Dooky’s first love was playing his trumpet. He started the Dooky Chase Orchestra fresh out of Booker T. Washington High School.
“Dooky’s band was the first band here to play progressive jazz. He was the first one to bring progressive jazz to this city.”
But his family restaurant beckoned.
“After his daddy died he had to come here and help his mother.”
Together, he and Leah took the reigns and raised the stature of the Orleans Avenue eatery. Music took a backseat.
“He used to work that bar. He didn’t drink but he could make you the best drink you ever drink.”
From presidents to civil-rights leaders, Dooky Chase was the meeting place. One of the few fine dining options in New Orleans for African-Americans.
“I fed them all. I fed A.P. Randolph. I fed Lester Granger. I fed Thurgood Marshall. I fed Michael Jackson. Everybody.”
Dooky Chase was noted as a place to be seen at lunch time. A check off list of New Orleans to-dos for tourists around the world.
“They come and they say, ‘You don’t have any red beans?’ No. So well I have to cook red beans every single day for the foreigners. They want them everyday as we do a lot of out of town people. Last week I had so many people who were from Australia. All kinds of people. They want what they read about."
In 2016 at the age of 93, Chase was honored with the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The culinary legend recognized for more than 75 years of excellence at Dooky Chase.
In 2017, a painting by artist Gustave Blache, her chef’s jacket and menu were installed at the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum of History and Culture.
“From the strawberry patch to the Smithsonian. That’s a far cry. I can not believe it. That is unbelievable."
In her life, art was important. Featuring local artists and others on the walls of her restaurant. A purchase fund at the New Orleans Museum of Art is established in her honor to acquire work by young African-American artists.
Leah Chase will be remembered for filling stomachs with her amazing food and lifting the community with her good deeds.
“I love to serve people. Sit them down. Let them enjoy their meal. Do everything for them. Do you know how great that is? How that makes people happy?”
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced. In lieu of flowers, the family asked donations to be made to the Edgar L.“Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation - P.O. Box 791313 New Orleans, LA 70179.
Mrs. Chase spoke with Nancy Parker on FOX 8 Morning Edition in October 2018 to discuss her incredible history and legacy. Watch her interview below: