Chef Leah Chase (1923-2019)

 

THE COLLECTION of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., includes portraits of America’s most iconic figures—legends of culture, politics, and history. When the most prominent among these national treasures dies, the Smithsonian museum recognizes their life and legacy by displaying their portrait in a designated In Memoriam space on the first floor. Since yesterday, a portrait of Leah Chase (1923-2019) occupies that space. The museum said the painting will remain on view until further notice.

A pioneering and beloved New Orleans chef, Chase died June 1. She was 96. For nearly seven decades, she presided over the kitchen at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where she was executive chef and co-owner. Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” she served her famous Creole gumbo, Shrimp Clemenceau, and “Dookie Chase-Style” fried chicken in a lively art-filled dining room where works by African American artists hung on the walls.

Chase counted civil rights leaders, cultural icons, and U.S. Presidents among her patrons and called artists Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and John Biggers friends. She authored cookbooks, made a guest appearance on Top Chef, and received a lifetime achievement awards from the Southern Foodways Alliance (2000) and James Beard Foundation (2016). Chase was the first African American ever bestowed with the prestigious Beard honor.

The Chase family confirmed her death and said she was surrounded by her family when she passed away. The cause was not specified. In a statement, the family said it was “heartbroken” to share the news, describing her as “a strong and selfless matriarch” who was “a major supporter of cultural and visual arts.”

The statement continued: “Her daily joy was not simply cooking, but preparing meals to bring people together. One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity. She saw her role and that of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to serve as a vehicle for social change during a difficult time in our country’s history. Throughout her tenure, Leah treasured all of her customers and was honored to have the privilege to meet and serve them.”

“She saw her role and that of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to serve as a vehicle for social change during a difficult time in our country’s history. Throughout her tenure, Leah treasured all of her customers and was honored to have the privilege to meet and serve them.” — The Chase Family


GUSTAVE BLACHE III, “Cutting Squash (Leah Chase),” 2010 (oil on panel). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist in honor of Mr. Richard C. Colton, Jr. Copyright Gustave Blache III

 

LEAH LANG CHASE was born into a large family on Jan. 6, 1923, in Madisonville, La. Schools in her hometown only educated black children up to sixth grade, so she moved from the countryside to New Orleans to complete high school, living with her aunt. By the time she encountered jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dooky Chase Jr. (1928-2016), in 1946, she had managed two amateur boxers and waited tables in a French Quarter restaurant. They married three months after meeting and had four children.

In 1941, her husband’s parents established Dooky Chase’s in the Treme, an African American neighborhood in New Orleans. Named for her father-in-law, the restaurant started out as a bar and sandwich shop. Eventually, Chase and her husband began working at the restaurant and she encouraged the family to transform it, providing authentic Creole cuisine in a white tablecloth environment similar to what she experienced working in the French Quarter.

The collection of African American art Chase built and displayed throughout the dining rooms added to the upscale feel Chase sought. Works by David Driskell, Melvin Edwards, Lois Mailou Jones, Samella Lewis, William Pajaud, John Scott, Mose Tolliver, and Clifton Webb, are on view. Stained-glass panels by Winston Falgout capture New Orleans street scenes.

Works by her friends Lawrence, Biggers, and Catlett grace the walls of the restaurant, too. Lawrence’s “Confrontation at the Bridge” (1975) is a limited-palette screen print about a 1965 voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. As marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., law enforcement officials violently confronted them with dogs, clubs, and tear gas. The historic scene, known as “Bloody Sunday,” hangs in the restaurant’s Victorian Room. Catlett’s “Harriet” (1975) is on display in the same room. The linoleum cut print portrays Harriet Tubman leading slaves to freedom.

“Two Generations” (1979), another print by Catlett, depicts a grandmother and her grandson in profile. Given pride of place, the modest-sized lithgraph is among the first works of art guests see when the enter the restaurant. Another work, “The Upper Room,” Chase has said was acquired from the artist, her friend Biggers, with gumbo serving as payment.

“When I first got it here (her art in the restaurant) they had no art galleries handling African American artists. My friends, like John Biggers, Jake Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, they said we’re going to put some work on your walls. So I got a lot of it as gifts from the big boys!” she told the New York Times.

“Art has to be something, to me, that talks to you, that you can feel that person who made this art and I thought that was a stepping stone for the community, too.”

“Art has to be something, to me, that talks to you, that you can feel that person who made this art and I thought that (having art in the restaurant) was a stepping stone for the community, too.” — Leah Chase


The New York Times talks to Leah Chase, chef and co-owner of Dookie Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans about her life and work—serving civil rights pioneers and entertainers, the likes of Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne during Jim Crow, and surviving Hurricane Katrina. | Video by the New York Times

 

Several portraits of Chase by various artist are also among the artworks that decorate the restaurant. Two paintings by Gustave Blache III, “Pouring Oysters” and “Dooky at Bar,” are particularly special. They are part of a series of portraits Blache made of Chase nearly a decade ago. The Brooklyn-based African American artist was born in New Orleans. He said he wanted to capture the chef’s process. The portraits document her daily prepping ritual.

The group includes “Cutting Squash (Leah Chase)” (2010), her portrait now on view at the National Portrait Gallery. Another portrait from the series, “Leah Stirring, Red Coat (Sketch)” (2010), is in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). In addition to the painting, NMAAHC’s collection includes Chase’s red chef coat, a Magnalite pot she used at the restaurant, a Dooky Chase’s menu, and The Dooky Chase Cookbook.

The portraits were the focus of “Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III,” a 2012 exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Organized in celebration of Chase’s 90th birthday, the museum also marked the occasion by inaugurating the Leah Chase Art Purchase Fund. Works by McArthur Binion, Leonardo Drew and Mildred Thompson have since been acquired through the fund.

A FRIEND TO ARTISTS and a patron of the arts, Chase’s art collecting dates to the 1950s. She was an honorary life member of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) Board of Trustees and served on the Arts Council of New Orleans. In 1995, testifying in support of the National Endowment for the Arts, she told a Congressional committee, “neighborhood kids, like me a long time ago, need to see something beautiful and breathtaking in order to aspire to higher things and to value living more.”

Chase was recently interviewed by two publications about her art collection. She discussed artists she was particularly close to with New Orleans Canvas Magazine (Winter 2019) and recounted how she first met Lawrence.

“Jacob Lawrence was the first African American to have a show at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Jacob really introduced me to the arts. My friend Celestine Cook, who was the first African American woman to sit on the board at NOMA, brought me to meet him at that show. She convinced NOMA to bring Jacob Lawrence to New Orleans,” Chase told New Orleans Canvas.

“Jacob’s speech during that show really moved me because, as he talked about his life, I realized that we came up through the same era. He came up under the WPA, (the Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression. I came up under the WPA as well. I could relate to him and we became good friends. His wife, Gwendolyn Knight, was a good artist too. Unfortunately they are both gone now.”

New Orleans Canvas asked Chase if there was a particular artwork she wished she owned. She said: “I wish I owned a nice big piece by Charlie White, who was Elizabeth Catlett’s first husband.” And then she added: “I also wish I owned a Romare Bearden, who was another great African American artist.”

 


Feb. 7, 2008: Leah Chase with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in the dining room of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans, shown with a painting by Richard Thomas. | Carlos Barria/Reuters

 

The Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Luncheon magazine features a 24-page profile of Chase. The story accounts for only three pages, the others are dedicated to beautiful photographs by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., of Chase, her art collection, and scenes from the restaurant capturing patrons, the decor, the menu, and the food.

(An abstract painting by Ed Clark covers the London-based culture magazine and his work is explored inside the issue, with text by artist Glenn Ligon. Based in New York City, Clark was born in New Orleans. Ironically, he is Chase’s cousin-in-law and one of his works on paper hangs in Dooky Chase’s.)

For the Luncheon article on Chase, writer Antwaun Sargent visited the nonagenarian chef at the restaurant. They talked about her life and the history of Dooky Chase’s, but mostly concentrated on the art collection and how it reflects her experiences and outlook.

“It’s a collection with a mission: to show the breadth of the African American experience,” Sargent wrote. “Begun after World War II, the collection carries forth the tenor of that era and the Black Arts Movement that grew from it. It presents what that movement’s leader, the poet and activist Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones), called for: ‘positive images.’ The art on the walls generally conveys something of a people: brilliance and an ability to overcome struggle in order to make contributions to community and culture.”

“It’s a collection with a mission: to show the breadth of the African American experience. …The art on the walls generally conveys something of a people: brilliance and an ability to overcome struggle in order to make contributions to community and culture.”
— Antwaun Sargent, Luncheon Magazine


Chef and co-owner Leah Chase in front of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. | Screenshot from New York Times Video

 

Sargent reported that Chase’s collection numbers about 100 works of art, including paintings, prints, photographs, and sculpture. She told him her favorite work was “The Cotton Pickers” by H. Strickland. The print focuses on two well-dressed African Americans looking on as a white man scrutinizes the weight of the cotton they’ve labored over. An expansive cotton field fills the background. He explained why she favored the image:

    What draws her to the work is the subtle, rebellious act of looking seen in the black female labourer’s face. ‘The black man is as humble as can be,’ she says, growing animated. ‘But look at that woman! She’s looking at him like, “You better not make a mistake on this cotton I have picked! You better weigh this stuff up right!” It showed you the strength of that black woman.’

Chase no doubt recognized her own strength and presence in the work. Visitors to the National Portrait Gallery may draw the same lesson from the prominent placement of her portrait. The painting shows her highly focused, hard at work in the kitchen. It’s a modest image that emphasizes that she continued to show up with her centennial on the horizon. Over a lifetime, with food as her focus, she proved to be an influential change agent.

She often said with pride: “In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.”

During Jim Crow, Chase served Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. More recently, she supported emerging artists and was an inspiration to top black female chefs like Nina Compton, chef/owner of Compère Lapin in New Orleans who was named Best Chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation (2018), and Mashama Bailey, executive chef and partner at The Grey in Savannah, Ga., who was featured in the premier episode of season 6 of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix.

Keeping company with similarly impressive women, Chase counted Stella Jones among her friends. After a career as a physician, Jones opened an eponymous art gallery in New Orleans. She’s been in business for more than two decades. She was traveling internationally when Chase died. Reached via email, she provided a statement to Culture Type. She said she is going to miss her great friend.

“New Orleans has lost a leading cultural light in the passing of chef Leah Chase. I am proud to have counted Leah as a close friend. Our love of art bonded us and it was a privilege of my late husband, Harry, and I to help her expand her impressive collection of African American art,” Jones said.

“Some of my fondest memories were sitting in the red room in Dooky Chase while Leah quizzed iconic artists such as Elizabeth Catlett and Samella Lewis about their vision and shared her historical perspective. She knew that food could be a window into our people’s culture and we often talked about how people should leave her restaurant full of great food and curiosity to know more about the legacy of African Americans on this city, our country and our world. I will miss her deeply.” CT

 

FIND MORE about Leah Chase in the obituaries published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and New York Times, and tributes by Jessica B. Harris in The Atlantic and Nina Compton in Bon Appétit

LISTEN to a report about Leah Chase’s life on NPR

FIND MORE about Leah Chase and the restaurant in a 2000 profile published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

FIND MORE about Dooky Chase’s historic listing in the Negro Motorist Green Book

 

FIND MORE about Dookie Chase’s on the restaurant website

 

BOOKSHELF
“Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III” accompanied the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibition. Cookbooks authored by Leah Chase include “The Dooky Chase Cookbook” and “And Still I Cook.” She co-authored “Down Home Healthy: Family Recipes of Black American Chefs.” Her biography, “Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This,” was authored by Carol Allen.

 


Leah Chase discusses her art collection with Jessica B. Harris, the culinary historian and cookbook author who is her longtime friend, at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2012 on the occasion of the exhibition “Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III.” The conversation focuses on Chase’s art beginning at 13:00, how she acquired certain works, what appealed to her about particular artworks, and the views and motivations of her artist friends. | Video by NOMA

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an editorially independent solo project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for your support.