Leah Chase spends her days chopping trinity with purpose and shaking her guests’ hands with gratitude. At 95, she remains a constant presence at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, both in the kitchen, where she arrives early to prep dishes, and in the dining room, where she greets the endless flow of those seeking an audience with her and the groups that convene under her roof.
Her family’s restaurant dates to 1941 and has become a New Orleans landmark for its Creole cuisine, its collection of African American art and for the social history that transpired here. Chase fed civil rights organizers, hosted their meetings and made her restaurant a neutral ground for black and white even when segregation made that illegal.
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Born in rural Madisonville, she came to New Orleans for school and has lived in the city ever since. In addition to Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, her family now runs the Edgar “Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation, named for her and her late husband, which supports community causes.
How did New Orleans shape your career as in restaurants?
"It was everything. If I didn’t come to New Orleans, I’d still be ironing clothes for other people. When I first came here, I’d never been inside a restaurant in my life, but people showed me what to do. You learn from people when you can be around them, and you appreciate what they know. In New Orleans I just had more opportunity to be around them. People live together here, black and white are side by side. If I was in New York or California back then, I would have lived on the black side of town, they’d be on the other. In New Orleans you met people and you lived with them. One thing I learned is that if you help people, they’ll help you."
What can New Orleans food teach us about this city?
"People come in and say this is a black restaurant. But I tell them we all eat the same thing in New Orleans. We eat rice. We eat gumbo. We have a common language with food. It’s our food, we all know our food here, we like our traditional dishes.
Food builds big bridges. If you can eat with someone you can learn from them and when you learn from someone you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together."
Did you have a sense during segregation that you were doing something extraordinary at your restaurant?
"No, I was just feeding people. They were fighting for something, and they didn’t know what they would find when they went out there. They didn’t know what would happen to them on the streets. But when they were here they knew I’d feed them. That’s what I could do for them. I’m grateful to all the people who devoted themselves to it."
Many people have called you a leader and an inspiration. What do you think makes a good leader?
"I’m not a leader, I’m a good follower and I can help uplift a good leader. The truth is not everybody can be a leader. But if your job is to help that leader you’ll go up with her, you’ll go up with him. You treat people right and you try to make a difference, and when you work together everyone will benefit."
How would you compare New Orleans now to when you were just starting out?
"I think we’re going places, especially when you get everyone to come together. We have neighborhoods mixing and people doing better for themselves. We just need good leaders. We have a good city, and it’s because of the people. I have people from all over the world who come to the restaurant and they’re amazed at what they see, they love New Orleans people. I don’t know what they have where they’re from that makes this so impressive, but I tell them this is just what we do here. This is how we live. No matter who we are, we know how to live.”