Leah Chase: Legendary Creole Chef
In 2019, we lost Leah Chase, the nation’s pre-eminent Creole chef, always knew what to feed her famous customers, including multiple Presidents. She was 96.
Photo via Eyevine
Mrs. Chase was much more than a gifted chef, although she would argue that there is no greater calling than feeding people. She spread her message through cookbooks, countless media interviews and television shows. Princess Tiana, the waitress who wanted to own a restaurant in the animated Disney feature “The Princess and the Frog,” was based on Mrs. Chase. It was the first African-American princess in a Disney movie.
Mrs. Chase possessed a mix of intellectual curiosity, deep religious conviction and a will always to lift others up, which would make her a central cultural figure in both the politics of New Orleans and the national struggle for civil rights. “She is of a generation of African-American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back,” said Jessica B. Harris, who is an author and expert on food of the African diaspora and who said Mrs. Chase treated her like another daughter. “It’s a work ethic, yes, but it’s also seeing how you want things to be and then being relentless about getting there.”
Leah Lange was born in Madisonville., La., a small town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, on Jan. 6, 1923. She was the second oldest of 13 children of Charles Lange, a ship’s caulker, and Hortensia (Raymond) Lange, a homemaker and seamstress. Her parents valued hard work and education, admonishing the children to keep their elbows off the table and teaching them to read with books that her father had salvaged from the trash heap at a nearby school for white children.
Because her hometown had no schools for African-Americans past sixth grade, she was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans to complete her education at a Roman Catholic high school.
Mrs. Chase was, by all accounts, exceptionally smart, and by an early age had memorized the Latin Mass. She graduated from high school at 16 and two years later took a job at a French Quarter restaurant.
It was the first restaurant she had ever been in, and it sparked a love of food beyond home cooking and an appreciation of beauty that she would nurture for the rest of her life.
She met Edgar Chase Jr., a jazz trumpeter and band leader known as Dooky, in 1945. Three months later they were married and began a family. They would have four children. Mr. Chase died in 2016 at 88.