Leah Chase, who taught the nation about Creole food at her Dooky Chase’s restaurant in New Orleans and was a celebrity chef who appeared in numerous TV shows and film documentaries, has died. She passed Saturday at her son’s home near her New Orleans restaurant.
Chase and her husband, Edgar “Dooky’ Chase, had the first white tablecloth restaurant for black customers in the heavily segregated city. Dooky Chase’s began as a sandwich shop in the Treme district, but expanded into an upscale restaurant that was the equal of anything in the French Quarter.
Along the way, Leah Chase’s expertise in Creole cooking drew national attention. Cookbooks, innumerable media interviews and television shows, and film documentaries cataloged this unique regional cuisine. Princess Tiana, who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated Disney feature The Princess and the Frog, was based on Chase. Tiana was the first African American princess in a Disney movie.
Her signature dishes included gumbo, jambalaya, trout amandine, and red beans and rice, a favorite of singer Ray Charles, who memorialized Dooky Chase’s in his version of Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Morning” (“I went to Dooky Chase to get something to eat/The waitress …”
Leah Chase appeared in an episode of NCIS: New Orleans in 2016, and in HBO’s Treme, but became well-known to the larger world through appearances on such shows as The Chew and Top Chef, as well as many film cooking documentaries.
Many celebrities visited Dooky Chase’s, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, James Baldwin, and Nat King Cole.
Leah Lange was born in Madisonville., La. on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain on Jan. 6, 1923. She was the oldest of 14 children. She graduated from high school at 16 and later took a job at a French Quarter restaurant. She met jazz trumpeter Edgar Chase Jr. in 1945 and married, producing four children, 16 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. He died in 2016 at age 88.
Their Dooky Chase’s restaurant became the go-to place for leaders of the civil rights movement at a time when many French Quarter restaurants didn’t serve people of color. At the time, it was illegal for black and white people to mix in public places in New Orleans, but Dooky Chase’s was a place never raided by police. She hosted Freedom Riders and meetings of the NAACP.
No memorial plans have been announced.