Leah Chase: A Revolutionary and Queen of Creole Cuisine
The memory of one of the nation’s most beloved chefs and activists lives on at Dooky Chase's.
For many, dining at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans’ historic Tremé neighborhood is more than just a night out. It’s something of a pilgrimage. The Creole and soul food restaurant has decades’ worth of stories, both of serving hungry New Orleanians and visitors, and for its place in Civil Rights history. When its longtime chef, Leah Chase, died in June of 2019 at 96 years old, what seems like the entire population of New Orleans paused to remember one of its most beloved cultural ambassadors.
So it’s safe to say: Dooky Chase’s is more than just a restaurant.
Dooky Chase’s dates back to 1941, when it was a store selling sandwiches and lottery tickets in the Tremé, one of the nation’s oldest African-American neighborhoods. Its founders, Dooky Chase, Sr. and Emily Chase, were prominent businesspeople in the community. Their son, Dooky, Jr., was an aspiring jazz musician and entrepreneur himself.
Dooky, Jr. married Leah Lange in 1945, just three months after meeting her. She became involved in the family business and began pushing her in-laws to make Dooky Chase’s more upscale, similar to fine dining Creole restaurants like Galatoire’s, Antoine’s and Commander’s Palace.
Message received, the Chase family slowly made Dooky Chase’s the city’s only upscale restaurant focused on serving New Orleans’ African American clientele. It became a place for drinking and dining, but in its early years also showed a subversive side, working around Jim Crow laws to cash checks for black dockworkers at a time when local banks wouldn’t serve them.
As Leah Chase’s participation in the family business grew, so did the restaurant’s status in the community. While segregation was still in effect, it was one of the only places in New Orleans outside of church where blacks and whites could get together socially — in a 2007 New York Times interview with Leah Chase, she credited the family’s respect in the community for the hands-off approach taken by white leadership in town. Dooky Chase’s was considered a safe space long before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
This drew the attention of some of the most historically significant figures in African American entertainment, activism and politics: Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Lena Horne and Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial — New Orleans’ first African-American mayor. It was a gathering place where Freedom Riders planned protests, and where Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, called Robert Kennedy on the house phone during lunch service.
Amid this, Dooky Chase’s also became, effectively, the first art gallery in New Orleans dedicated to displaying the work of local African-American artists, showing their works at a time when other New Orleans galleries refused to do so.
After Jim Crow laws were abolished and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, more black-owned restaurants in New Orleans began to appear. But Dooky Chase’s business, despite the new competition, continued to thrive.
Fast forward to the recent past. By the time President George W. Bush visited Dooky Chase’s in 2007 (dining on crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau), Leah Chase had been in the kitchen for more than 60 years. When future President Barack Obama dined with her a year later, she scolded him — gently — for putting hot sauce on the gumbo she made.These and countless other stories, not to mention the rich Creole dishes like red beans and rice, stuffed shrimp and po-boys, have contributed to the legendary status of Dooky Chase’s.
When Leah Chase died in June of 2019 at the age of 96, it made national headlines. A jazz band led a parade past the restaurant in her honor. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell — the city’s first female African-American mayor — said of Chase, “It’s impossible to overstate what she meant to our city.”
As much as others have lauded Leah Chase and her contributions to Creole cooking and the Civil Rights movement, Chase’s own words — often quoted by others — perhaps best summarizes her accomplishments. “In my dining room,” she said, “we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.”
Don't miss an opportunity to head to Dooky Chase's for a legendary bowl of gumbo, a taste of history and give a nod to the Queen of Creole Cuisine, Leah Chase.