I never got to eat at Dooky Chase’s restaurant, and because of that, I never had the honor of meeting Leah Chase, a culinary icon of New Orleans. Sadly, Leah Chase died on June 1st at the age of 96, leaving behind a legacy bigger and more famous than the delicious gumbo she served up to presidents, civil right’s activists, celebrities, and travelers.
Leah Chase transformed her husband’s small sandwich shop in the Treme into a fine dining establishment which soon became the meeting place for leaders of the civil rights movement. Here, everyone was welcome, no matter their beliefs or their skin color. She opened her doors to the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, Sr., Martin Luther King, Jr., and in more recent times, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Anthony Bourdain among many others. The walls of her restaurant could tell stories of hard conversations during difficult times, including the horrific aftermath and devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
When the community saw hard times, she stayed in place, even renovated, refusing to abandon the neighborhood, the corner on which they built their foundation and welcomed the world.
I don’t know the man who works for Cafe Du Monde in the photo above, but I do know that the people of New Orleans are more intriguing than any walk down boisterous Bourbon Street. They are hard-working men and women with a robust culture, proud of their roots, happy to welcome you to their city, and give you a taste of their cuisine.
These are the people who have made and continue to make NOLA. May you rest in peace, Leah Chase. I would have loved to have sat at one of your tables and heard about it all. And I know I would have loved that gumbo.