A Woman to Know: Leah Chase

In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken. — Leah Chase

In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken. — Leah Chase

(image via National Portrait Gallery)

Leah Chase’s food brought people together. All kinds of people: New Orleans natives, sitting presidents, civil rights leaders, renowned artists and tourists from all over the world.

In 1941, when she was just 18, Leah got her first restaurant job at The Old Coffee Pot in New Orleans’s famed French Quarter — it was, in fact, the first restaurant the small-town Louisiana girl had ever stepped inside. The job changed her life. Leah took to the kitchen, making up her own recipes, learning the classic ones, slicing squash (as painted above) and eventually meeting her first husband outside its doors.

In 1946, she married Dooky, a jazz band leader who came from a family of cooks. His parents owned a po-boy stand in New Orleans’s legendary Treme neighborhood. Leah pushed her in-laws to expand their business, adding her own recipes to the ever-growing menu. Eventually, she and Dooky took over, turning the street food stand into a sit-down restaurant.

But in the 1950s, New Orleans remained segregated. Famed restaurants like Antoine’s and Galatoire’s only allowed white patrons inside; as a result, Dooky Chase’s became the go-to spot for Freedom Riders talking civil rights news, jazz musicians meeting up after shows and Black families looking to celebrate special occasions. Without a local Black-owned bank, people frequently turned to Dooky Chase’s to cash their paychecks — Leah often said Friday, when she would open the bar for these customers, became one of the most popular days at the restaurant.

Leah grew up in the kitchen, but her love of art drove much of her philanthropic work. Because she grew up in a segregated Louisiana, she was unable to see many of the great masterpieces in person. In 1977, when she was 54 years old, Leah finally walked into an art museum — and her love of collecting was born. She eventually joined the board of a local art museum and Dooky bought her a Jacob Lawrence painting. She immediately hung it up for view in the restaurant, which she fashioned into a gallery, “considered by many to be Louisiana’s best collection of African-American art,” The New York Times wrote.

In 2004, Hurricane Katrina forced Leah and her husband into a FEMA trailer, where they lived for 18 months. Rushing water devastated part of the restaurant, but, to Leah’s relief, the flood line didn’t reach her beloved art collection. Leah joined Women of the Storm, a local activist group fighting for funds to restore her beloved city, and cooked fundraisers to help her city recover. In 2007, after two years of renovation, Dooky Chase’s was able to reopen to much fanfare. The restaurant became a campaign stop for high-profile politicians, and Leah delighted in feeding these celebrity guests alongside her New Orleans regulars.

When her husband died in 2016, Leah continued supervising in the kitchen. She died three years later, at the age of 96.

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