Leah Chase took obvious, beaming joy from visiting with guests at her Dooky Chase‘s Restaurant. She would greet and thank them, table by table, moving more slowly as the years wore on but keeping steadfast to her daily ritual of gratitude.

On Monday, it was time for her friends and admirers to bring that ritual full circle as one by one they said final goodbyes at the chef's casket.

Chase died June 1 at age 96. Her determination, her kindness and her courage to chart unconventional and sometimes controversial paths left a lasting mark on the worlds of New Orleans food, culture, art and politics.

For more than a week, her life has been celebrated at both freewheeling second-line parades and a grandly orchestrated tribute that made Xavier University's Convocation Center feel like the site of a state funeral.

The commemorations culminated with her burial Mass at St. Peter Claver Church on Monday. People started lining up shortly after dawn for the morning visitation, and the queue to enter the church at one point stretched two blocks deep on a blazing hot New Orleans morning. 

In this Treme church, just blocks from her restaurant, where generations of her family had been wed and baptized and where the funeral for her husband, Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, was held in 2016, Leah Chase was remembered for the woman she was and the inspiration she gave others. 

In a eulogy, her son Edgar Chase III charted his mother's journey from a childhood in a small-town family struggling through hard times to a chef hailed internationally as the queen of Creole cuisine. He described her foundational belief in equality and compassion.

He also shared how, in her last days, she surprised the family by offering an apology.

"She said three words, 'I am sorry.' She was sorry if she never expressed how grateful she was to you," he said. "Have you ever thought about gratitude as an expression of love? To my mother, gratitude and love were the same."


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A spectrum of New Orleans life turned out to share their own gratitude. They came by car, on bicycle and on foot. They came in white chef coats from across the city's dining scene and in the yellow blazers of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. They came in suits and dresses for the church service or waited outside in shorts and less, ready for the second-line that would follow.

They attended a Mass and heard a eulogy from Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who said Chase gave her a personalized "list of expectations" shortly after her election as the city's first female mayor.  

"She told me, 'It's not going to be easy,'" Cantrell said. "'You will be underestimated. They will come at you from every level. But if you stay focused, there's nothing you can't do.' ... She wanted me to succeed not for myself, but for all of us."

Born on Jan. 6, 1923, the oldest of 11 children of Hortensia and Charles Lange, Leah Chase was raised across Lake Pontchartrain in Madisonville. She moved to New Orleans in 1941, when the draft and build-up for World War II meant more jobs were opening for African-American women like herself. That included restaurant work which would soon inform her own ideas for Dooky Chase's Restaurant, which her in-laws had started as a bar. 

As she took on more responsibility, she began changing the neighborhood joint into a destination restaurant. While racial segregation was the law in Louisiana, Dooky Chase's became a place for important dinners, first dates and social gatherings in the black community.

By the 1950s, with the civil rights movement gaining ground in New Orleans, it became a meeting place for activists and civic leaders, both black and white, in defiance of Jim Crow laws. Groups packed into the second-floor dining room for planning sessions and food.

For the generations that followed, Chase would be revered as a beacon for the civil rights struggle. Luminaries and even U.S. presidents would come to dine at Dooky Chase's. But all the while, the chef was known and beloved on a personal level by her customers, her friends and her neighbors. 

"Every time I went to see Mrs. Chase, she treated me as if I was royalty," said Sally-Ann Roberts, the retired broadcaster, before the funeral. "She always made time to counsel me. She was just real. My esteem for her is just the way she made people feel in her presence."

Vance Vaucresson, third-generation maker of Creole hot sausage and supplier of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, said it was often the services Chase rendered her community beyond the table that made her restaurant such an important place.

"She was there with nuggets of your own history. She would tell you what you needed to know about your people, your neighborhood and your city," Vaucresson said. "She was someone who tied it all together. Losing her means losing a cornerstone."

A section of pews inside the church was reserved for chefs, and it was filled with many who arrived in their white chef coats, the equivalent of dress blues at a military function.

One regiment of chefs represented the Chefs Charity for Children, the annual benefit for St. Michael’s Special School, a school for children with disabilities. Chase had been a devoted supporter for decades, cooking and speaking each year at the event.

Goffredo Fraccaro, of the former La Riviera restaurant, now 94, said he could not miss the last chance to see his old friend. “She was an amazing chef. All of us who knew her looked up to her,” Fraccaro said.

Several St. Michael’s students attended the funeral alongside the chefs.

“Her support was unbelievable. It was always a big honor for the kids to meet her and spend time with her,” said Courtney Maheu, a teacher at the school.

Chefs and food pros traveled from near and far for the funeral, including Wayne Baquet from Li'l Dizzy's restaurant a few blocks away and Savannah-based chef John Randall, founder of the African-American Chefs Hall of Fame — of which, of course, Chase is a member.

Louisiana chef John Folse honored his longtime friend with a basket of vegetables, including the bedrock "Creole trinity" of onions, celery and bell pepper and links of andouille, all done up like a floral arrangement.

Chase was also remembered by Frank Turner, longtime cook at Crescent City Steak House, who said her visits to his restaurant felt like special occasions. "She'd come see me for her T-bones every other week," said Turner. "She was a great lady who always liked being out in her city."

Inside St. Peter Claver, New Orleans bandleader Deacon John sang in honor of Chase at the beginning of the service, and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard performed "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" as her coffin was brought outside at the end.

While the service was underway, St. Philip Street filled with people, some hoisting parasols against the blazing sun, a few hawking pralines from shopping bags or bottled beer from rolling ice chests. People wiped sweat from their brows and clustered in the narrow shade of a row of shotgun houses, craning for a glimpse of her casket.

Women in tignons and traditional white dresses and members of "baby doll" clubs in feathers and lace waited outside. A phalanx of Zulu members lined the block ready to escort the family.

With sousaphones and trombones shining in the sun, the procession began with a dirge, achingly slow, each beat a long step, then a pause, then another long step. People dressed in their Sunday best filed from the church and braided in among the more casually attired crowd outside, filling the street and sidewalks as they walked together.

The dirge continued as the Zulu members and the brass band and the Chase family made their way toward Dooky Chase's Restaurant.

There was still the burial ahead, and a final procession from the cemetery to a repass outside the New Orleans Museum of Art, where a spread of fried chicken and red beans and rice was served for all.

But of course, it all goes back to the restaurant. The Chase family said they would reopen for lunch and business as usual Tuesday, just as Leah Chase would have insisted.


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.