Legendary New Orleans chef and civil rights icon Leah Chase has died. She was 96.
Her family released a statement Saturday saying the “unwavering advocate for civil liberties” and “believer in the Spirit of New Orleans” had died.
Chase put the Dooky Chase restaurant on the map by turning it into the first white-tablecloth establishment that catered to the black community. She also challenged New Orleans’ segregation laws by seating black and white patrons together.
In her seven-decade culinary career, Chase fed civil rights icons, presidents, legendary artists and common folk alike, introducing them to Creole cooking, which combines the flavors of France, Africa and Native America.
Her fans included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and musicians Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn.
Chase recalled when she hosted Barack Obama at the restaurant while he was campaigning for president in 2008. She said she had to slap him down when he tried to add hot sauce to her dish. “Mr. Obama, you don’t put hot sauce in my gumbo,” Chase recalled in an interview with WWL-TV. “So I had to reprimand him.”
Chase was born in Madisonville, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, on Jan. 6, 1923.
She married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a jazz trumpeter and band leader in 1945. She went to work at her father-in-law’s sandwich shop in New Orleans, where she convinced the family to expand the business, to make it more like the finer restaurants she had worked at in the city’s French Quarter.
The restaurant became a gathering place for leaders of the civil rights movement to discuss strategy, often with their white allies.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, the Dooky Chase restaurant was flooded, with 1.5 meters of water in the dining room for weeks. The damage was so extensive some thought it would never reopen. But it did two years later.
Leah Chase could be seen at the restaurant until a few months ago, greeting guests and overseeing the kitchen with the help of a walker.
“I love people and I love serving people. It’s fun for me to serve people. Because sometimes people will come in and they’re tired. And just a little plate of food will make people happy,” she said during a 2015 interview with The Associated Press.