Leah Lange Chase, a highly regarded African-American chef and businesswoman based in New Orleans, died June 1 after a brief illness.
Known for her love for African-American art, Creole-style cooking and advocacy for civil rights, Chase’s restaurant, Dooky Chase, became known as a gathering place for civil rights activists, Black and white, as well as a safe haven for those seeking to escape the travails of Jim Crow. The family-owned restaurant reopened in 2007 after having been flooded in Hurricane Katrina and served as a crucial step in the slow rebirth of the city.
Hundreds showed up for Chase’s “jazz funeral” several weeks ago as pallbearers exited from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in New Orleans with her coffin, falling in line behind the hearse. The tradition of the “jazz funeral” dates to the late 1800s and the birth of the musical genre itself. In summary, it represents a celebration of rebirth.
Born in Madisonville, Louisiana, in 1923, Leah Chase grew up in a community that provided little opportunities for her in terms of education as schools in the area did not extend beyond the sixth grade. Thus, her parents sent her to live with her aunt in New Orleans in hopes of providing her with a better life and allowing her to advance her education.
Chase was one smart cookie as she completed her high school education from a Roman Catholic school at the age of 16 and began working at a restaurant in the French Quarter two years later where she fell in love with food and began to desire to spread that love around.
She met her husband, Edgar Chase Jr., a jazz band leader and trumpeter in 1945 and they married within three months. They later had four children.
Chase’s love for food served as the motivation for her to enter the business world. Working in her in-laws’ sandwich shop, she desired to make the restaurant similar to high end ones with which she had become familiar as a former employee in the French Quarter, and so Dooky Chase was founded.
Chase received many awards for her activism and cooking including the lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2000 along with several honorary degrees from schools that include Tulane University, Dillard University and Loyola University.
Often hailed as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Chase once derailed President Barack Obama’s futile efforts to put hot sauce on a serving of her world-famous gumbo.