When she was a child growing up in rural Louisiana, Leah Chase’s father gave her three rules to live by. The first was to pray. The second, to work. And the third, to do for others. “I’ve lived by those rules every day of my 93 years,” Chase said. “I could not live a day without doing something for someone else. I wouldn’t be happy.”
That’s why, on most days, you can still find her in the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant preparing others her famous Creole cuisine. She’s been a fixture there since the 1940s when she and her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr., took over the restaurant from her in-laws.
Back then, the renowned New Orleans establishment was not only a place to try Chase’s home-cooked meals, but also a cultural meeting spot. During the 1960s, people of all races would gather there to discuss the Civil Rights Movement. Dooky Chase’s has maintained its cultural significance over time, catering to celebrities and politicians alike. But it’s the everyday patrons who come to sit and talk with Chase each day that continue to inspire her.
“People are the most important thing in life. Living is beautiful. But living with people – meeting people, thinking about people, helping people – that’s what makes life worth living,” she said.
After more than 70 years in the kitchen, Chase knows how to create dishes that are both healthful and flavorful. But she believes eating healthfully is about more than ingredients. “I am a big believer in eating in moderation,” she said.
“We used to only eat fried chicken on Sundays. Now, people want it every day. But you can’t. You need to have something to look forward to or it isn’t special.”
Chase also believes healthier communities start at home. “We need to get people back to the dinner table, to talk and practice good manners and eat simple meals. Because family is where it all begins,” she said.
Although Chase is considered the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” that doesn’t mean she’s done learning. “As you go along in life, you learn to do different things. But, most important, you learn to be a part of things. You have to play your part to make a difference,” she said. “And that’s what I do through cooking.”
Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase is a chef, author and advocate for African American Art.
As executive chef of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, Leah Chase has fed notable civic and international leaders, legendary entertainers, United States presidents and countless others. She was the inspiration for the character Princess Tiana in Disney’s movie The Princess and the Frog.
After completing high school, Ms. Chase waited tables in the French Quarter, and developed her love for food and feeding others. In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr. and joined him in operating Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, one of the few public places in New Orleans where mixed race groups could meet to discuss the Civil Rights Movement.
Ms. Chase has received many awards and honors from numerous organizations, including the NAACP, New Orleans Times-Picayune, National Conference of Christians and Jews, National Council of Negro Women, National Restaurant Association, Southern Foodways Alliance, Distinguished Restaurants of North America, and Southern Food and Beverage Museum.
In 2010, Ms. Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage. She has received honorary degrees from Tulane, Dillard, Loyola, and Johnson & Wales universities; and Our Lady of Holy Cross and Madonna colleges. She has served on many boards, including the Arts Council of New Orleans and the New Orleans Museum of Art; and is a current member of Women of the Storm and International Women’s Forum. Learn more at dookychaserestaurant.com.