It's an article of faith in New Orleans that you'll always find Leah Chase at work at her Dooky Chase Restaurant, either in the kitchen – chopping trinity and stewing chicken before lunch service – or in the dining room, greeting cufflink-clad bankers at one table and guidebook-toting tourists at the next. These days though, there's also a good chance you'll find the 89-year-old icon of Creole cuisine speaking from a podium or seated at a head table, accepting the latest in a stream of awards and honors.
Some of this recognition reflects her culinary legacy. The Southern Food & Beverage Museum named a permanent gallery in her honor in 2009, and earlier this year she received the National Restaurant Association's Faces of Diversity Award.
But other honors from outside the restaurant industry show just how far this extraordinary woman's impact and influence have carried. Last year, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana presented Chase with its Ben Smith Award, its highest honor, for her work promoting racial equality. In April, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) honored her at a gala which simultaneously served as the debut for an exhibit of paintings of Chase by Gustave Blache III, a New Orleans-born artist now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and as a fundraiser for NOMA's new Leah Chase Art Purchase Fund, which will help the museum acquire more works by African-American artists. The museum was packed for the gala, which Chase insisted be held on a Monday night to accommodate the work schedules of her restaurant industry friends.
Chase draws a crowd wherever she goes. Well-wishers flock for handshakes, hugs and cellphone snapshots with the chef who hosts U.S. presidents, inspired a landmark Disney animation character – Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, the studio's first African-American princess – and operates a family restaurant that famously served as a hub for activists and organizers at the height of the civil rights struggle.
The attention is nothing new for Chase; official honors have been rolling in for decades. She greets it all with gratitude, but also with a dash of the characteristic feistiness that keeps the people around her on their toes.
"It's been wonderful and just beautiful, and I'm so appreciative, but it bothers me a little too," she says. "If I'm getting all of this attention, does it mean other people need to step up more? Does it mean somebody else isn't doing their work?"
Work is a compulsion for Chase, and her tenacity, combined with the courage to pursue unconventional and sometimes controversial decisions, has charted the course of her life and left her mark on the worlds of New Orleans food, culture, art and politics.
"She is of a generation of African-American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back," says Jessica Harris, an author and expert on food of the African diaspora, and one of Chase's longtime friends. "It's a work ethic, yes, but it's also seeing how you want things to be and then being relentless about getting there. It's about making sure it gets done and making sure that your hand is doing its part."
Leah Chase can bring down the house with jokes and she can make people blush with compliments that they suddenly believe about themselves thanks to her convincing sincerity. Still, she isn't all sugar and honey. She's known to holler in the kitchen and bawl out employees who aren't performing to her standards. In her words, she's "always calling people stupid jackasses."
"When I first met her, she told me her personal hero was General Patton," says John Musker, the director of The Princess and the Frog. "She became our General Patton because she worked so hard and inspired so many people." The World War II army commander may have inspired his troops, but he also famously slapped a shell-shocked G.I. and called him a coward — a tale Chase retells with evident admiration.
But to understand Chase's story, one has to put aside today's familiar visage of the accomplished and indefatigable lady, seemingly always clad in her red chef's coat beneath her halo of white hair. Instead, try conjuring the image of an 18-year-old beauty who arrived in New Orleans in 1941, eager to get her start in the world, equipped with a high school education and strong values but hardly a cent to her name.
Born on Jan. 6 — Twelfth Night — in 1923, the oldest of Hortensia and Charles Lange's 11 children, she was raised across Lake Pontchartrain in Madisonville, then a small shipping and boat-building town along the Tchefuncte River. Her father, initially a ship caulker, later had a Works Progress Administration job during the Great Depression, working for 50 cents a day.
"Father told us to pray for work every day," Chase recalls. "We'd go fishing in the mornings so we could have perch and grits for breakfast — but a lot of times, man, it was just grits."
There was no high school nearby for black students, so at age 13 Chase took a steamer across the lake to New Orleans to live with an aunt and attend St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic school for black girls in the city. She returned home after graduating at age 16, but two years later departed for New Orleans for good.