At the youthful age of 94, culinary icon, Leah Chase is a bonafide living legend. Since she was a teenager, Chase has worked in the culinary industry and has used food as a catalyst for change in the realm of politics and philanthropy. As the head chef and co-owner of the internationally renown Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans, Leah Chase has fed the likes of Quincy Jones,Jesse Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Ray Charles, former President Barack Obama and many more. In an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, Chase, affectionately known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” dishes out advice on the importance of living a fearless, selfless life.
LAS: How did you initially get started?
Leah Chase: I grew up in a small town across the lake, and [at the time] there were no high schools for blacks to go to and my dad insisted that we attend Catholic school. I was taught by The Holy Family Nuns who also taught Danny Bakewell Sr.’s mother we both went to the same school, St. Mary’s Academy. I graduated high school when I was 16-years-old but there was no work for me at the time so I had to go back home. I came back to New Orleans when I was 18-years-old and I’ve been working in food service ever since.
LAS: What do you want people to know about New Orleans? How has the culture changed post Hurricane Katrina?
LC: After Katrina, I know in the restaurant business, we lost so many good waiters who understood food service because now a days they don’t. So much of the culture, particularly in the black community we lost and we didn’t have to lose it. Why can’t we have these fine black restaurants with fine service by black people who always gave good service? Because we thought that was demeaning and it’s not, it’s a good living. Those waiters made good money…I’m about to get on the floor myself and serve people! The most important thing you can learn is how to interact with people. You meet new people every day so you’ve got to learn something everyday.
We have to pay attention to one another, regardless of how someone may look or act, look again. Looking at people is like looking at art. I may look at a painting and dislike it because I don’t understand it but then I’ll look deeper and I’ll see things better.
LAS: Can you talk about some of the pivotal points in black history, that you, your husband and the restaurant were apart of?
LC: We started between 1940/1941 we were working with the NAACP trying to work to get the community involved but it was too slow. We had good leaders like Thurgood Marshall, A. P. Tureaud and Dutch Morial but they didn’t want to offend people. We as black people were taught to respect othes no matter what; we were taught to be respectful and to do our part in making lives nice but that wasn’t going to open any doors. So here comes all these young people with CORE and SNC, they weren’t ready either but sometimes you do things that you’re not ready for but you do it and get the work done; that’s what these Freedom Riders did. People my age didn’t understand the movement.
We couldn’t imagine our children going to jail but they were willing to do that to make the changes that helped us all. People my age should have gotten on that band wagon and supported them a little bit better than we did, but we were afraid for them. They were young and fearless and that’s what young people do, they take chances.
We still have a long way to go but if we work together and we work hard, you’ll see black people in positions you never thought we’d be in. I thought I would never see a black President. There’s no way in the world I thought this black man could beat this white woman until the day Obama did it! I thought you were going to pull the rug from under me in some way because we just didn’t think we were ready for that. But here’s this young senator ready or not he’s going in! And that made us feel like we were apart of something and it made the rest of the world look at the U.S. differently, we’ve come along way and we have a longer ways to go to continue to see African American’s in positions of power but that’s why we have to continue to value education.
LAS: How has cooking taken you throughout the United States and abroad?
LC: I’ve been to Paris and Germany, I should have traveled abroad more than I did but I’ve been all throughout the United States. When I think about it, I went throughout the U.S. to participate in fundraisers.
I would go to Detroit and host dinners; I was a part of a raffle where the highest bidder would win a dinner and the proceeds went towards scholarships for African Americans to attend Madonna College in Livonia, outside of Detroit.
I began to see how impactful the scholarship dinners were because when we first started doing it, we could count the blacks that went to Madonna on one hand. By the time I got my honorary degree from Madonna College, there were hundreds of black students and alumni.
I would also go to Fort Wayne, Indiana to help with their food bank. They needed a food bank I would help them raise money so that they could distribute food to the elderly; it’s one of the finest food banks in the country. I felt great every time I got to travel for a fundraiser.
LAS: Have you thought about retiring and pursuing another passion outside of the culinary arts? At the youthful age of 95, what keeps you in the kitchen?
LAS: Because I still haven’t gotten this to where I want it. I had it going good and here comes Hurricane Katrina, it blew everything away. 80% of the city was underwater, we lost it all. We didn’t know what to do, we had never seen such a catastrophe before in our lives.
We didn’t know what it would take to rebound from such a tragedy but we soon learned that we would have to help another in order to rise above it all. I had a lot of help–people from all over gave me money to help rebuild the restaurant. So now I have to make it work so that I can be a blessing to other people.
When someone helps you, then that means one thing, all they expect in return is for you to show them what you’re doing and for you to help someone else.
LAS: Based on your wealth of life experiences, what advice would you like to leave readers with?
LC: I’m still learning….learning from my great grandchildren and everyone around me. I would advise others to keep trying, stop and listen.
It’s a different world than when I was coming up where your mother would say something and you would ask ‘why?’ and she’d say, ‘because I said so.’ That doesn’t work today.
You have to explain to little children ‘why’ and you also have to listen to them and believe me, they will reason with you, they’re unbelievable! So you can learn from everyone at any age. Life is about listening, leaning and never giving up. As long as you’re here on earth, you’re here for a purpose and it’s not about you it’s about what you can do to better the world you live in. And that’s why I’m here, to help someone else up.