It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of the incomparable Leah Chase, talented chef/owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, cookbook author, civil rights activist, mentor, and advocate for the culture and people of her home city, New Orleans. She died surrounded by family on Saturday, at the age of 96.
Chase and her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., took over the family restaurant in the early 1950s, and transformed the Treme eatery into a culinary luminary in Creole cooking. Although she had no formal training, Chase quickly became a master of the cuisine, lauded for her signature dishes: gumbo, jambalaya, trout amandine, and more, which drew locals and celebrities like Ray Charles and Nat King Cole. Dooky Chase’s also became a central gathering place for leaders of the civil rights movement, providing for hungry Freedom Riders and hosting NAACP events. Even decades later, cultural and political figures flocked to the restaurant, including a particularly significant visit from then-candidate Barack Obama.
Chase was known for her tenacity and determination to lift up those around her. After flooding from Hurricane Katrina devastated the restaurant, Chase and her husband lived in a FEMA trailer next to the restaurant during the 18 months of repairs. She continued to actively cook at Dooky Chase's well into her '90s, and to offer advice and guidance to members of the culinary community who passed through her kitchen.
"Leah Chase meant so much to so many. World leaders sought her counsel and support and yet she always made time to speak with a young activist, or help a fellow chef perfect their take on her classic dishes. Even when the legendary Dooky Chase's was shuttered for two years after Hurricane Katrina, she never stopped working, mentoring and sharing her rich history of experiences with each chef who came to see her. Her legacy lives on in every person—guest, chef or activist—who understands the deep human connection that comes from sharing a meal, and who are fighting to return dignity and humanity to our food system. Leah Chase is a legend, and we will all miss her," shared Katherine Miller, James Beard Foundation vice president of Impact, on behalf of the Foundation.
Chase received the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Learn more in her lifetime achievement award video profile.