Though her James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award might suggest otherwise, Leah Chase is adamant she’s not a chef. “I am a cook,” she clarifies. “But a really good cook.” Chefs boast formal training, something that, technically, she doesn’t have. “I have learned much from trained chefs I’ve worked with and even taught things to some,” she says, “but I will always think of myself as a really good cook.”
Chase, christened the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” is not only formidable in the kitchen, but also something of a pop culture icon: check out her cameo in Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” watch Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (she was the inspiration for Princess Tiana), or stop by the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. – she’s the first chef whose portrait is in the permanent collection.
During the Civil Rights era, the restaurant was a hub for activists, a safe spot to steer history and nourish the body at once.
Similarly, her family restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, is in the pantheon of notable institutions most certainly in New Orleans and likely in the country. The gumbo z’herbes is legendary, as is the heart of this soul food destination.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant opened in 1941 with Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr., at the helm. By 1945, their son – and Leah’s husband – Dooky Chase, Jr., took over. Leah soon joined the mix, adding Creole recipes to the restaurant’s menu for the first time; these dishes remain among its most iconic and popular offerings. During the Civil Rights era, the restaurant was a hub for activists, a safe spot to steer history and nourish the body at once. In the 2012 multi-racial production of Tennessee William’s famed “A Streetcar Named Desire,” lead actor Blair Underwood told NPR of an important script change: the original play called out Galatoire’s by name, which was segregated during the 1940s. They changed the line to say Dooky Chase’s.
As for Chase herself, she started her career at just 14 years old (she reveals this as though it’s an incredibly late age to start cooking. Meanwhile, I don’t think I knew how to boil water by age 14).
“My mama used to tell me my ideas were too high, and that I needed to train as a seamstress, a store clerk, or a teacher. When that was all that was available in Madisonville, [La.] where I was from, I came to New Orleans to live with an aunt and look for work,” she explains. “I was hired at the Colonial Restaurant and learned from day one that to be a cook is hard work.”
Chase’s favorite New Orleanians? ‘My grandkids, the Manning boys, and my customers,’ she says.
Fast forward through decades of world-famous diners (including President Barack Obama), long lists of acclaim (honorary degrees, myriad feature stories, and big-deal awards), and you’d think some of this success just might have gone to Mrs. Chase’s head. It’d be understandable, but you would be wrong. And though the James Beard Lifetime Achievement award is significant, to be sure — “I am just amazed and proud to receive it,” she says — Chase’s real lifetime achievement is an unwavering commitment to her calling.
“We each have a gift to give, whether it’s cooking in a kitchen, sweeping a floor, or taking care of your kids. It’s our responsibility to do the best job we can at whatever we are talented at,” she says. “I happen to love to cook.”
20 Questions with Leah Chase
1. Who is your favorite New Orleanian, dead or alive, real or imagined?
My grandkids, the Manning boys, and my customers.
2. What first brought you to New Orleans?
A job in a kitchen. I had never cooked in my life, but I learned so much on that job and learned to love to cook.
3. In your opinion — what’s the best neighborhood in New Orleans?
The French Quarter because it has a bit of everything New Orleans has to offer.
4. If it’s a beautiful day, where are you going to spend it?
In my kitchen at Dooky Chase, cooking.
5. Describe the best meal you’ve eaten in New Orleans.
Food at our fine dining restaurants. Honestly, all our food is good, but I like the food best where the service is really done well.
6. Where’s your favorite brunch spot?
I love going to the Hyatt [Regency] where they serve up a really good brunch. That’s also where Besh’s restaurant [Borgne] is, and it’s really good, too.
7. What’s your favorite type of po-boy? Where do you get it?
Anywhere you order it. New Orleans has the best food no matter where you go to get it.
8. You’ve got friends visiting, and it’s their first time in New Orleans — where are you taking them?
New Orleans Museum of Art, the French Quarter, and Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.
9. What’s your favorite neighborhood bar?
Snug Harbor because of the music.
10. What is your favorite New Orleans cocktail, and where do you go to get it?
A hotel bar because they aren’t like any you’ll find anywhere else. Many drinks were invented in New Orleans hotel bars.
11. What’s your favorite dessert or sweet treat in the city?
Bread pudding and pecan pie.
12. Best spot to see live music?
Frenchmen Street because it’s a place where you can hear every type of music New Orleans has to offer.
13. Favorite New Orleans musician or band?
Leah Chase (my daughter), Irvin Mayfield, and the Marsalis boys.
14. Favorite New Orleans festival?
French Quarter Festival because you hear all New Orleans musicians, taste our food, and get in for free.
15. What’s your ideal New Orleans date night?
A fine restaurant where you get great service. I love the service at our restaurants, where they make you feel special.
16. What are your favorite local shops?
I don’t shop, I cook, so I guess I’d say wherever you make groceries.
17. What is your favorite New Orleans museum?
18. Where do you go to watch The Saints play?
My relative’s house. We all get together, bring food, and enjoy the day.
19. Describe New Orleans in one word.
20. When was the last time you fell in love with New Orleans, and why?
Believe it or not, after Hurricane Katrina, when we all pulled together and helped each other. So many people have helped me, I need to live forever to pay them all back.