[Courtesy of Louis Armstrong International Airport]

Honoring Leah Chase on Her 101st Birthday

07:00 December 29, 2023
By: Amy Kirk Duvoisin

Leah Chase 101

"As long as you're here on earth, you're here for a purpose and it's not about you—it's about what you can do to better the world you live in."
—Leah Chase

LeahChase, 48_x48_Oil on canvas [courtesy Natalie and Adrian K. Cohn collection]

Chef Leah Chase was born on Joan of Arc's birthday, January 6 (Twelfth Night) in 1923. According to Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This, Chase's biography by Carol Allen, "Leah shared a birth date with a woman who would later become one of her most admired people—Joan of Arc. The characteristics of courage, leadership, standing up for one's beliefs, and deep Catholic faith are qualities both women share."

Chase's birth on the first day of Carnival was also a good coincidence in foretelling her legacy. The symbols of justice (purple), green (faith), and power (gold) symbolize her dedication to social justice and civil rights, her religious devotion, her own power and strength, as well as her ability to use "the power of gumbo" to unite, comfort, and inspire people.

"She to me is the true spirit of Epiphany and Mardi Gras—giving. She was given the gift of being a fabulous cook, the gift of bringing people together, the gift of love. She was given all these gifts and she used them for the good of the world," stated Liz Williams, founder of the National Food & Beverage Foundation and the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. In 2009, SoFAB renamed its Louisiana gallery the Leah Chase Louisiana Gallery.

When the Robert E. Lee statue was removed from Lee Circle, a petition was started by the National Food and Beverage Foundation in 2019 to name it Leah Chase's Circle. While this did not come to pass—it's now named Harmony Circle—there is no shortage of "monuments" to her memory.

Dooky Chase's [Robert Witkowski]

Leah Chase's Accolades

She has been given so many awards and honors, the list is exhaustive, but here are a few: In 1997, she was awarded the Times-Picayune Loving Cup, which recognizes residents who have worked unselfishly for the community without expectation of public acclaim or material reward. Other awards include: the Weiss Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Torch of Liberty Award, the University of New Orleans Entrepreneurship Award, and the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women.

She is the inspiration behind the character for Princess Tiana in Disney's The Princess and the Frog (2009). A red chef coat of hers is now part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture's collection. She was painted by Gustave Blache III, and one of these paintings was acquired by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2011. In 2012, a full exhibition of his work entitled "Leah Chase: Paintings" was on display at New Orleans Museum of Art. A commissioned portrait, Leah Chase, by Aron Belka was on loan for a 2022-2023 exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

In 2016, she was given the James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2018, Food & Wine magazine named Dooky Chase's Restaurant one of the 40 most important restaurants of the past 40 years.

Leah Chase's Legacy

Known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, she is also New Orleans' patron saint of hospitality. The Big Easy is recognized worldwide for its tourism and hospitality industry and Chef Chase is one of its most beloved and famous ambassadors. But, most importantly, her brand of hospitality aligns with the simplest definition—loving others. According to Chase, whose kitchen has been called "a church of its own" by the New York Times, "Food builds bridges. If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together."

Anyone who knew Mrs. Chase says the same things: she never said no, she was always welcoming and always real, she was always respectful and honest, and her glowing smile was the basic ingredient of all her interactions. She brought people together, and she was the hardest working person they knew.

Here are just two of countless anecdotes that demonstrate Chef Chase's generosity of spirit, maternal nature, and why she is truly our patron saint of hospitality. Elisa M. Speranza, president of Seventh Ward Strategies, LLC, relayed a prime example:

"Soon after the floods post-Katrina, I was driving the CEO of my company around the city (our company was involved in the recovery). I was pointing out Dooky Chase's restaurant just as Ms. Leah came out of her FEMA trailer. She waved to us, and I pulled over. The CEO rolled down his window and I asked how she was doing. She treated me like a long-lost friend (though we didn't know each other) and chatted with us cheerfully for about 10 minutes. The CEO was so impressed—it was the highlight of his tour, and she made me look like a star in front of the big boss. Every time I met her after that, she made me feel that same way."

Dr. Megan Holt, executive director of One Book One New Orleans, says, "The first time I met Chef Chase, she told me how glad she was to see a young woman come in her restaurant wearing a nice dress and shoes...after that, whenever I went to Dooky Chase's, I put on a decent dress. I came to realize that for her, it was less about the outfit and more about her own standards. She set the standard for her restaurant, she expected everyone to make the effort to rise to that standard, and she did not compromise. Most importantly, Ms. Leah made sure that everyone who dined there was treated with dignity and respect, and she expected the same dignity and respect in return, both for herself and for her staff."

[Courtesy of Louis Armstrong International Airport]

Currently, her children keep her legacy of dignity and respect alive with the Edgar "Dooky" Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation, created to "cultivate and support historically disenfranchised organizations by making significant contributions to education, creative and culinary arts, and social justice."

Mardi Gras is about bringing people together, sharing love, and spreading joy. It makes sense that Leah Chase began her life on the day that this season begins. Happy Birthday, Miss Leah, and Happy Twelfth Night.

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