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Leah Chase: 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Debbie Koenig

May 02, 2016

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The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.

Trailblazers don’t always intend to beat a new path. When Leah Chase first moved to New Orleans in 1940, she chose not to follow her aunts to work in a factory. Instead she applied for a job as a waitress in the French Quarter. It was a humble entrée into hospitality, but also the first step toward her groundbreaking role as the chef at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, a position that she has held for seven decades. She has fed politicians and civil rights leaders, celebrities and bus drivers, all while amassing an influential collection of African-American art. As New Orleans–born food historian Lolis Eric Elie says, “Mrs. Chase is an icon of American cooking, of Creole cooking, and of African-American cooking.” 

In 1946 Leah Lange married Edgar Dooky Chase Jr., a big-band leader whose family had owned Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, a sandwich shop and barroom in Tremé, the neighborhood at the heart of New Orleans’s black and Creole culture, since 1941. “When we got married, I said, ‘We’re going to change things,’” recalls Chase. “The black community had no restaurants. We only had fried chicken, fried fish, and that kind of thing.” Inspired by restaurants in the French Quarter, she reinvented her husband’s business, adding Creole cuisine to its menu, tablecloths to its dining room, and art to its walls. 

Most radically, the reimagined Dooky Chase became one of the first restaurants in the segregated South where black people and white people could dine together. Freedom Riders made plans over gumbo and fried chicken, while Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Martin Luther King Jr. held strategy sessions in the upstairs meeting room. “In some ways, we changed the course of America, right here in this restaurant,” Chase says.  

“In a moment when trends come and go, when restaurants come and go, when chefs come and go, she has proven the value of fidelity to place, to community, to purpose,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, of which Chase is a founding member. “Through her restaurant and her long service to the community, she proved that to invest deeply in one place, by way of your restaurant, is a higher calling in our world.”

“Her influence extends beyond the mere culinary,” says Jessica Harris, author of Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim and a longtime friend of Chase’s. “She has been an extraordinary force for good and for change in New Orleans. She has captured the imagination of young African-American chefs around the country, thereby becoming not only an icon, but also a role model.”

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters reached five feet inside the restaurant, and the damage forced the business to close for two years. Brett Anderson, restaurant critic for the Times-Picayune, visited Chase after the water receded. “I have an incredibly vivid image of this hunched-over woman living in a trailer, in a neighborhood where there was really nobody living anymore,” he says. “Outside were completely devastated buildings, and she was talking so cheerfully about how everything was going to be OK. That’s when I realized what Mrs. Chase was up to. She was assuming a certain responsibility.”

During the intervening decade, the area surrounding the restaurant has changed. The Lafitte housing projects, which sat across the street for decades, were torn down. But Dooky Chase remains as a ballast for the community. “It was a neighborhood restaurant in the best sense of the word,” says Edge. “The people who once lived in that neighborhood have dispersed, but when they return, they’re returning to their neighborhood restaurant, no matter where they live now.”

Dooky Chase is still a family-owned restaurant, with Leah Chase, now 93, and her daughter Stella Chase Reese, at the helm every day. “At some point they’re going to get rid of me, and my grandchildren will take over,” Chase chuckles. “I push hard every day. I work, every day I come into this kitchen and I work.” 

That work ethic, that cheer—these are hallmarks of Leah Chase’s life. “Mrs. Chase seeks to see the best in people and seeks to be a peacemaker,” says Elie. “If you talk to her about politics, what you’ll find is her looking for common ground. She’s often said, ‘If I can get the people on both sides to just sit down at my table, I think we can work this out.’ There’s an optimism there, a faith in humanity, that exemplifies who she is and exemplifies her approach to cooking.”

For Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine, it’s simple: “I don’t care if you’re the pope or the president, you have to eat. And I can cook for you,” she says. “All I do is try to make people happy through food.”

Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.

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Debbie Koenig is a freelance writer and editor covering topics on food and travel. She is based in New York City.