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Leah Chase, New Orleans chef who championed Creole cuisine, dies at 96

Chef Leah Chase in 2009, preparing for lunch at her restaurant Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans.
Chef Leah Chase in 2009, preparing for lunch at her restaurant Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans. (Bill Haber/AP)
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Leah Chase, a New Orleans chef and cookbook author who championed Creole cuisine in a career spanning more than seven decades and whose Dooky Chase’s restaurant became a haven for activists during the civil rights movement, died June 1 at 96.

Her family announced the death in a statement but did not provide additional information .

Mrs. Chase lacked formal culinary training but had been exposed to a rich home-cooking tradition on her family’s rural Louisiana farm. She also worked in a posh restaurant in the city’s French Quarter before marrying the son of Dooky Chase’s founder.

When her father-in-law fell ill in 1952, she and her husband — onetime bandleader Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. — stepped in to help run Dooky Chase’s. “I thought I was going to be the little hostess out front,” Mrs. Chase told the New York Times in 1990, “but there was nobody cooking, so I landed in the kitchen.”

Dooky Chase’s, located in the historic African American neighborhood of Treme, started around 1940 as a po’ boy shop and lottery stand inside a worn shotgun house. It later expanded to accommodate demand, as the eatery became a haunt for black musicians and entertainers seeking to allay their 4 a.m. hunger pangs.

But it was Mrs. Chase who elevated the menu and made Dooky Chase’s a leading exponent of Creole cooking. Her upgrades — efforts to mirror some of the fancy French Quarter offerings — were not always welcome.

“The people did not know what a shrimp cocktail was. They thought it was something to drink,” Mrs. Chase told Gourmet magazine in 2000.

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Mrs. Chase instead turned her focus to classic Creole dishes that had mostly been the purview of home cooks. She quickly became known as a master of the cuisine, a mishmash that takes its cues from French, Spanish and African fare, reflecting the diverse cultures and races of the city’s settlers.

In addition to gumbo, Mrs. Chase’s signature dishes included jambalaya, trout amandine (fried fish and almonds) 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 looked at me and said, ‘Ray, you sure look beat.’ ”).

Mrs. Chase’s husband was a member of the NAACP and made sure the establishment was a safe place for black and white activists to mix during an era of legalized segregation. It became a meeting ground for luminaries including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

The restaurant was also so popular with its white clientele that city officials dared not try to shut it down. Mrs. Chase said a pipe bomb was once thrown at the front door, and she received many harassing letters, but the prevailing spirit was one of interracial camaraderie.

“My job was just to feed people,” Mrs. Chase told New Orleans weekly the Gambit in 2016. “. . . In New Orleans, you don’t do anything without eating. So they would come here and I would make gumbo and fried chicken, and they’d have lunch and plan their moves. Sometimes it was hard and sometimes it was frightening, because you didn’t know who was going to come back and who wasn’t.”

For decades after the civil rights movement, Dooky Chase’s continued to attract political and cultural figures, including several presidents — one of whom the characteristically loquacious and candid restaurateur was not afraid of chiding when he swung through town as a candidate on the campaign trail.

Barack Obama was “so kind,” Mrs. Chase recalled for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2009. “But the only thing is, he put hot sauce in my gumbo. I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Obama.’ He said, ‘But I like hot sauce.’ ”

Leah Lange was born Jan. 6, 1923, in Madisonville, La., located across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. She was the oldest of 11 children in a family headed by her shipyard-worker father and her mother, who taught her how to make strawberry wine (from berries in their strawberry patch) and stewed quail (family members shot the birds as they raided the patch).

As a teenager, she moved to New Orleans to attend the city’s first Catholic secondary school for black women. Upon graduating, she took jobs in sewing and domestic service before working in restaurants.

In 1945, she met her future husband at a Mardi Gras ball, where he was playing trumpet and leading a big band. They married the next year and had four children. Her husband died in 2016, and complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 1990, Mrs. Chase published her first volume of recipes, “The Dooky Chase Cookbook.” Her second, “And Still I Cook,” came out in 2003. (Its title was a bit of an understatement, considering she maintained a daily presence in the kitchen into her 90s.)

Over the years, Mrs. Chase amassed a collection of noted African American art, including works by painter Jacob Lawrence and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, and displayed it at the restaurant.

Like many New Orleans businesses, Dooky Chase’s was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The restaurant was closed for two years as the Chases raised money and lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer across the street. Mrs. Chase said she saw a civic responsibility in reopening Dooky Chase’s, which had become an institution on the city’s dining scene.

In 2016, the James Beard Foundation awarded Mrs. Chase a lifetime achievement award. She was the first African American to receive the honor.

“Madisonville, just look at me now,” Mrs. Chase said in her acceptance speech with a nod to her Louisiana hometown, according to the Times-Picayune. “A long ways from the strawberry patch.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the title of one of her books. It is “And Still I Cook,” not “And I Still Cook.” The story has been revised.

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