NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans chef and civil rights icon Leah Chase, who created the city’s first white-tablecloth restaurant for black patrons, broke the city’s segregation laws by seating white and black customers and introduced countless tourists to Southern Louisiana Creole cooking, died Saturday. She was 96.
Chase’s family released a statement Saturday saying the “unwavering advocate for civil liberties” and “believer in the Spirit of New Orleans” died surrounded by family.
“Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together,” the statement read. “One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity.”
Chase transformed the Dooky Chase’s restaurant from a sandwich shop where black patrons bought lottery tickets to a refined restaurant where tourists, athletes, musicians and even presidents of all races dined on fare such as jambalaya and shrimp Clemenceau. The restaurant and Chase’s husband were both named after her father-in-law.
Chase’s determination propelled her from a small-town Louisiana upbringing to a celebrated chef who authored cookbooks, appeared on cooking shows and fed civil rights greats such as Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. Well into her 90s, Chase could be found daily at the restaurant, using a walker while greeting customers and supervising the kitchen. The power of food to transform a day and the desire to better her city drove her.
“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 .
When she married Dooky Chase in 1946, his family restaurant had been open five years, largely under the guidance of his mother. But Leah Chase wanted to make it a fine dining experience for black patrons along the lines of what she’d seen in the Quarter. Gradually, she introduced silverware on the table, tablecloths and Creole dishes.
“I said, ‘Well why we can’t have that for our people? Why we can’t have a nice space?’” she said. “So I started trying to do different things.”
During the civil rights movement, Dooky Chase’s became known as a place where white and black activists could meet and strategize about voter registration drives or legal cases. Although Chase and her husband were breaking the law by allowing blacks and whites to eat together, the police never raided the restaurant.
Chase would also send food to civil rights leaders when they were in jail, sniffing her nose at the idea of them eating prison food.