By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photos by Frank J. Methe, Clarion Herald
What more can be said about Leah Chase that hasn’t already been uttered? She died June 1 surrounded by her cherished family. Generous to a fault, faith-filled and always helping others, Miss Leah possessed a phenomenal work ethic and always wore a smile.
She was a country girl from Madisonville raised by parents with a strong Catholic faith and belief in education. She told me in a 2012 interview that her father had three rules to follow: “You prayed, you worked and you did for others.”
She came to the big city New Orleans so she could attend school at St. Mary’s Academy while living with her aunt and chanced into a job at a French Quarter restaurant where she gained a love for the business. She met musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase, fell in love and married into the Dooky Chase family business, working her way up in the restaurant, complementing the simple menu with cuisine that was more upscale for blacks who couldn’t eat in the ritzier restaurants in the segregated south.
Miss Leah firmly believed that through your work you can show your faith. And, she did that every day. She fought for Civil Rights in her own way – opening the restaurant doors so leaders – black and white – could eat while talking business and politics.
She treated everyone with respect and invited you into her kitchen with a familiarity that made you feel special. She served the average person, U.S. presidents, writers, musicians (local, national and international) and world leaders the same and was never shy to express how she felt about an issue, if asked.
Even if she didn’t know you, she would take the time to stop and talk or even take a picture with you as was evidenced after her death on many social media posts. She’d come out at lunch and hold court at each table to greet those who loved her and her food.
Miss Leah was always one to accept invitations for causes – donating not only her food but often her time to appear. St. Michael School Chef’s Charity was just one of the many Catholic causes she believed in as well as to her beloved Sisters of the Holy Family who taught her at St. Mary’s Academy. She worshipped at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Treme where her funeral Mass was held June 10.
Helped Catholic press
She graciously consented to appear on a panel with chefs Frank Brigtsen, John Besh and Klara Cvitanovich at a national Catholic Press Association conference we hosted in New Orleans in 2010. Showcasing our local city through food was second nature to her. The panel discussion was shortly after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, less than two years after Hurricane Gustav and five years after Katrina, so their heart-felt insights rendered an insider’s view to the blows that were affecting the local seafood industry, their livelihoods and their lives. I heard from many Catholic journalists after the session that it was one of most memorable they had attended at a conference.
I had the privilege to drive her back to Dooky Chase’s after, discussing her life and how she and Mr. Dooky knew my grandfather, boxing promoter Louis Messina. He had run the Gypsy Tea Room, a club that hired black musicians at a time when other white-owned establishments banned them. They were friends and patrons of each other’s establishments in an era that made that difficult. I spoke personally with Mr. Dooky about this friendship when I visited the restaurant to interview Miss Leah for the Clarion Herald’s Lenten special section Holy Smoke section during Lent. I regret not returning to reminisce more, because he is gone now, too.
Their generation lived at a time in New Orleans that was colorful, yet difficult, but one where people knew how to overcome differences often better than we do now. They have so many stories left to tell but are no longer here to tell them.
While Miss Leah won many accolades during her career, including those from the NAACP, the local Loving Cup from The Times-Picayune in 1997, was a James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America inductee in 2010, received several honorary college degrees and even had songs written about her and a Disney movie character who was inspired by her life, I think she was most proud of her family and her support of local and upcoming black artists of whose many works hung on the walls of Dooky Chase’s.
I recall her being flattered when black artist Gustave Blache III did 20 paintings of her working “behind-the-scenes” at the restaurant. One of them landed at the National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute, in Washington, D.C. The entire collection was exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where she volunteered and was donned a lifetime member.
The Edgar “Dooky” Chase Family Foundation she and Mr. Dooky created will continue to support “historically disenfranchised organizations” by contributing to creative and culinary arts and social justice causes as it was founded to do.
While the person of Leah Chase will be sorely missed, her memory and legacy will not fade easily from our city. I know I will continue to make her stuffed Creole tomato recipe that is so loved in my household, and, hopefully, my kids will make it after I am gone.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.