On January 28, 2016, the James Beard Foundation announced that New Orleans’ Chef Leah Chase has been named the recipient of the 2016 James Beard Lifetime Achievement award. The foundation awards the Lifetime Achievement award “upon a person in the industry whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and think about food in America.”
Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase is a chef, restaurateur, and TV personality revered by many as one of the best in her profession. In 1946, she married big band leader Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr.; the son of Dooky Chase’s restaurant owners Emily and Dooky Chase, Sr., who originally opened the restaurant in 1941. Leah and Dooky, Jr. worked together in his parents’ restaurant shortly after their marriage. With a shared vision Leah and Dooky, Jr. transformed Dooky Chase’s, which was once a sandwich shop, barroom, check cashing and lottery ticket outlet, neighborhood gathering place, into a sit-down restaurant wrapped within the cultural environment of Creole cooking, African-American art, and jazz. Chef Chase, a patron of the arts displayed her collection on the walls of her restaurant and at one time was considered to have New Orleans’s best collection of African American art. The restaurant doubled as one of the first galleries where black artists could showcase their work in New Orleans.
Located in Historic Faubourg Treme’; the country first neighborhood for free people of color and Europeans, Dooky Chase’s restaurant was one of the only public places in New Orleans where mixed race groups even though illegal through the sixties, would meet to discuss strategy for the local Civil Rights Movement. The restaurant served as the meeting ground for black voter registration campaign organizers, the NAACP, political activists, and countless others, and Leah Chase cooked for them all. Iconic Civil Rights Leaders such as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Andrew Young, Attorney and soon to be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, along with local leaders Ernest “Dutch” Morial, Oretha Castle Haley, Jerome Smith, Justice Revius Ortique, A.P. Tureaud, and others held regular planning sessions at Dooky Chase during those racially tense decades of the 40’s through the 70’s and beyond.
Other dignitaries who have dined at the restaurant includes President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, Hank Aaron, Ernest Gaines, James Baldwin, Bill Cosby, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Reverend Jessie Jackson, and a host of others.
As noted by the James Beard Foundation, “Chase’s original dishes would help pioneer the Creole food movement and her recipes for dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and fried chicken have gone on to become kitchen staples.” Leah Chase even served as the inspiration for Princess Tiana in Disney’s Princess and the Frog.
As a writer of two cookbooks; And Still I Cook, and The Dooky Chase Cookbook, and winner of countless food and humanitarian awards, Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010.
Leah Chase has received many other awards, including multiple awards from the NAACP, the Weiss Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1997 Loving Cup Award, and the Outstanding Women Award from the national conference of Negro Women. Southern Foodways Alliance presented her with a lifetime achievement award in 2000. She has received honorary degrees from Dillard University, Tulane University, Loyola University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, and Johnson & Wales University. Ms. Chase is also the recipient of the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, the highest award presented to an individual by Xavier University. In 2009 Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans named a permanent gallery in Chase’s honor.
In celebration of Chef Chase’s longstanding contributions, the New Orleans Museum of Art presented an exhibition of 20 paintings that capture Chase at work in the kitchen of her restaurant. The series, painted by New Orleans raised Gustave Blache III, captures her lifelong dedication to the Culinary Arts. One of the images was included in the collection of iconic American images in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Today the family owned restaurant remains a stopping place for politicians, musicians, visual artists, literary giants and a must stop for New Orleans tourists seeking authentic Creole Cuisine. “I am overwhelmed to receive such a prestigious award,” said Chase. “I never dreamt of receiving such an award for doing what I love to do: cook and serve others.”
Established in 1990, the James Beard Awards recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields and further the Foundation’s mission to celebrate, nurture, and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire.
Founded in 1986, the James Beard Foundation celebrates, nurtures, and honors America’s diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire. A cookbook author and teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge about food, the late James Beard was a champion of American cuisine. He helped educate and mentor generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts, instilling in them the value of wholesome, healthful, and delicious food. For more information, please visit www.jamesbeard.org
by Taylor Sylvain, New Orleans Agenda