Leah Chase Was A Driving Force In Creole Cuisine

The city of New Orleans is known for many cultural offerings — Mardi Gras, Voodoo, and an arsenal of signature food dishes, to name a few — but producing some of the nation's (and world's) top chefs lands very high on its list of contributions. And while Emeril may take the King Cake as the city's titan of culinary onomatopoeia, Leah Chase will be forever known as the "Queen of Creole Cuisine." 

From a James Beard award of lifetime achievement to inspiring a Disney princess, Chase's honors and influences run the gamut. Her food lives on at one of the city's institutions, Dooky Chase's, which she helmed the kitchen of for seven decades. Prominent figures graced her tables over the years, from Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. and Nat King Cole to former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, all stopping by for the cuisine and company. 

However, her influence spanned far beyond gumbo. Her legacy as a driving force in the 96 years New Orleans was lucky to have her is worth a deep dive.

Who was Leah Chase?

Leah Chase was born in 1926 in a small town just north of New Orleans on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. Her foray into the culinary world of the city began just out of high school (which she graduated from early) and led to 70 years in the trenches of restaurant kitchens. She met her husband not much later, Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, and found herself back in the kitchen of his parents' po' boy stand once their children were of school age.

Her imprint on the Dooky Chase restaurant was swift and substantial. The corner sandwich stand soon became a sit-down restaurant with Leah at the helm. Over the following 70 years, Dooky Chase's would grow from a haven for civil rights leaders to meet to one of the only upscale restaurants for the city's African American communities to dine, to a lyric in a Ray Charles' song, and ultimately a New Orleans institution and a must-visit destination for tourists from all over the globe.

Revered for her gumbo and then some

While the mark she left is certainly more than a bowl of authentic gumbo, her recipe for the classic Creole dish was infamous. When both Sidney Potier and Quincy Jones requested the city's trademark dish — but only from Leah — shipped straight to their door, you know it must be special. Her signature stew is so foolproof she even stopped President Obama from adding a dash of hot sauce to his bowl in her presence.

Dooky Chase's is also known for its extensive art collection. Leah found the perfect intersection of art, food, and music to perfectly emulate that very same intersection the city of New Orleans embodies. In addition to palate-pleasing Creole food, the restaurant is also beloved for its African American art and antiques. She was known for keeping the bellies of struggling artists of the city full until they made it big on their own. Her culinary staples included fried chicken, shrimp Clemenceau (Gulf shrimp with potatoes, mushrooms, and peas in a lemon butter sauce), and crab-stuffed shrimp. 

Dooky Chase's shuttered post-Katrina with little hope of getting back on its feet, thanks to Edgar Chase's reluctance to borrow or spend money. With Leah telling the New York Times back in 2006 (and with the pizzazz only a true New Orleanian can encompass), "He wouldn't give a crippled crab a crutch to get to a gumbo party." But resurrect the restaurant did, and it's still going strong today, embodying Leah's formidable spirit both on the plates and in its atmosphere.

A laundry list of accolades fit for a legacy

The awards and accolades attributed to Leah Chase is a laundry list of well-deserved accomplishments. She received the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award a few years before her passing in 2016, the NAACP Human Understanding and A.P. Tureaud Awards, the Times-Picayune "1997 Loving Cup Award" for public service, the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women, and the list goes on and on. Her culinary work is featured in the Culture Expressions Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. 

Chase received honorary degrees from Tulane University, Dillard University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, Loyola University New Orleans, and Johnson & Wales University. She authored the Dooky Chase Cookbook and served as the muse for Princess Tiana in Disney's The Princess and the Frog — the first African American Disney princess.

The soul of Leah is sure to live on within history, the heartbeat of New Orleans, and her Creole cuisine still going strong at Dooky Chase's in the Treme district.