Leah Chase: Master ChefRead Now
On January 6, 1923, Leah Lange was born in Madisonville, Louisiana, which is a small town in the St. Tammany Parish, to parents Charles and Hortensia Lange. Charles Lange worked as a ship caulker and Hortensia was a homemaker and seamstress, the couple produced thirteen children and Leah was the second oldest of the thirteen. The Lange family came from humble beginnings in a town that was segregated and Jim Crow laws existed, despite being affected by the Great Depression and having to survive by farming, education was highly valued in the Lange household. The Lange family was Roman Catholic and their children attended Catholic schools in Madisonville until high school when Leah moved to New Orleans to continue her education at St. Mary's Academy, an African American Roman Catholic high school. Leah developed a love for cooking as a young girl spending time in her family’s kitchen.
At the age of sixteen, she graduated high school and began working as a domestic worker and at a sewing factory before quitting those jobs to work at a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter called The Coffee Pot, waiting tables. Leah working at The Coffee Pot waiting tables was seen as taboo because she was Creole, but it was also taboo for an African American to work in the French Quarter at the time. According to a New York Times article about Leah Chase, her working at The Coffee Pot was the first time she was in a restaurant. She went on to work at the Colony Restaurant, an upscale restaurant, as a waitress. Her time at The Coffee Pot and the Colony Restaurant helped to further develop her love for cooking and the foundation of her historic future.
In 1945, Leah Lange met a man named Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. at a dance, the two would hit it off and eventually marry a few months later. Edgar Chase Jr. was a well-known trumpet player and bandleader from New Orleans' Treme neighborhood. Leah traveled with Edgar Jr. and his band for the first years of their marriage until the birth of their first child because they decided to travel less to manage their growing family. Edgar Chase Sr. owned a small lottery-like stand that also sold po'boy sandwiches; by the time Edgar Jr. and Leah decided to travel less and manage their family, Edgar Sr. grew his stand into an upscale black-owned restaurant named Dooky Chase. In 1952, as Edgar Chase Sr. became ill, Leah and Edgar Jr. took control of the restaurant and helped it expand into one of America's beloved black-owned restaurants by blacks and whites during the Jim Crow era. Dooky Chase served as an upscale place black people could go to for great food and community gatherings. Black and white freedom fighters from across the country would gather at Dooky Chase, allowing Leah to meet and befriend a number of our most beloved black figures; the restaurant was even used as a meeting place for the NAACP. Dooky Chase became a place where black people from all walks of life descended upon when they were in New Orleans.
Dooky Chase is located in the historic Treme neighborhood of New Orleans on Orleans Ave, and because of the vision of Leah, the restaurant was able to grow and thrive but the neighborhood around the restaurant was not. She was advised to move her restaurant but refused because she valued her neighborhood. When Leah and Edgar Jr. first took over the restaurant Leah thought she would be a hostess but they needed a cook, so she migrated into the kitchen and brought in foods that were considered classic Creole dishes and traditional New Orleans dishes, a move that proved to be successful. She didn’t want to serve foods that were considered extravagant, she wanted to serve foods that people loved or could grow to love. During and after segregation, Dooky Chase rose to New Orleans restaurant prominence because of the quality of the food and dining experiences of her customers. Dooky Chase attracted people such as Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Ray Charles, and many more. Leah developed a love for art, especially African American art, and decided to redecorate the restaurant by covering the walls with exquisite African American art. Her love for art spawned into her serving on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts. Her impressive resume also includes authoring two books, The Dooky Chase Cookbook and And Still I Cook.
Her perseverance was put on display when Dooky Chase was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, her grandson placed her art collection in storage to preserve it. A benefit was held by the Treme community for the restaurant where over forty thousand dollars were raised which helped to reopen the doors of Dooky Chase. Leah Chase used food to inspire the world from her restaurant in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. She was able to travel and meet a number of the most powerful people in the world. There is even a story of her correcting President Barak Obama before he added hot sauce to her world-famous gumbo. Throughout her life, Leah earned many awards which include the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1997 Loving Cup Award, the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women, a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2000, the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, which is the highest award presented to an individual by Xavier University of Louisiana, plus many more. A gallery was dedicated to her by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. She received at least six honorary degrees from various universities before her death in 2019. A woman from a small town in Louisiana developed a love for food and art which helped to uplift and promote Creole New Orleans food and culture around the country and around the world. She is known for her personality, art, gumbo, world-famous fried chicken, and using her restaurant to help make the world a better place. Mrs. Leah Chase, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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