Profiles in Black History: Leah Chase

Leah Chase has been one of the most revered names in culinary history for decades earning the title, “The Queen of Creole Cuisine” as well as enough rewards to fill two entire pages of her 2002 biography. Aside from her culinary career, Leah is well known for her contribution to the Civil Rights movement, her extensive collection of paintings painted by black artists, and her aid in New Orleans’s recovery after hurricane Katrina. She was so celebrated for her accomplishments that her trademark red chef’s coat currently hangs in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The character Tiana in the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog was even based on Leah.

Leah was a devout Catholic and, because the town in which she lived was segregated and did not allow black children to attend the only Catholic high school in the area, she moved to New Orleans and lived with her relatives. After She graduated high school at St. Mary’s Academy, Leah held a multitude of jobs to make ends meet, her favorite being waiting tables at the popular restaurant Cafe Beignet. It was during her time working there that she would decide to go into the food service industry.

In 1946 Leah married the love of her life Edgar “Dooky” Chase II who was at the time the trumpeter and leader of a jazz band. Leah and Edgar would go on to run a poboy stand formerly owned by Edgar’s parents. Gradually, the stand became a full-fledged sit-down restaurant named Dooky Chase’s. Leah would go on to update the menu to the creole dishes that she had cooked since her childhood as well as more high-end dishes usually served at white-only restaurants that would otherwise be unavailable to Leah and her predominantly African-American diners. 

Dooky Chase’s would become a regular meeting place for African-Americans to discuss and plan the civil rights movement. Due to the fact that activists would frequently receive threats from law enforcement and segregationists, they needed a secret meeting place. Dooky Chase’s was a restaurant that served food so good that it was not suspicious to see white allies mixing with African-American’s. Leah would use the guise of a “private dining room” to move activists into an office out of view of potential threats. 

Leah would begin collecting paintings made by African-American artists after Edgar gifted her a painting by Jacob Lawrence. The walls of Dooky Chase’s would quickly become plastered with Leah’s quickly expanding collection. Some art aficionados would even go to Dooky Chase’s not for the food but for the comprehensive gallery that was the dining room. 

Leah’s love affair with art began after she studied it in high school. Art would soon grow to become one of her greatest passions in life. However, in Leah’s youth she could not enter art museums due to segregation laws that were active in that time. When segregation laws were lifted she finally entered an art museum for the first time at 54 years old. Later, Leah would join her close friend Celestine Cook on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1972.

After Leah’s death in 2019, New Orleans mourned the loss of one of their most cherished and beloved citizens. With little exaggeration one could say that she was the patroness of New Orleans. Her burial site was even visited and blessed by her Bishop on All Saints Day. 

In her honor the Edgar Jr. & Leah Chase Family Foundation exists to make financial contributions to historically disenfranchised communities.

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