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Leah Chase honored on her 90th birthday; kicks off a family foundation

14th January 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Philip Stelly
Contributing Writer

Leah Chase is the kind of chef and restaurateur who has cooked for presidents, prom queens, artists, musicians, Mardi Gras royalty, stevedores, the social elite and everyone in between.

She is the kind of chef and restaurateur who will bake a bunch of lemon ice box pies and donate them to a hospital support group for fundraisers. Leah Chase is the kind of chef and restaurateur who today remembers you when you were a small child.

Leah Chase is 90 years young. And she is showing no signs of stopping her true mission of uplifting her family and her community. Indeed, fulfilling that mission has been key to the success of Leah Chase and the famed Dooky Chase Restaurant for the past 67 years. Dooky Chase, an unassuming brick structure on Orleans Avenue has been a touchstone of local and national politics, and a rite of passage for tourists and locals alike.

Leah Chase posing for a portrait by artist Gustave Blache at Dooky Chase
Restaurant. The oil portrait appears in the artist’s book, Dooky Chase Restaurant Featuring Leah Chase.

Leah Chase posing for a portrait by artist Gustave Blache at Dooky Chase
Restaurant. The oil portrait appears in the artist’s book, Dooky Chase Restaurant Featuring Leah Chase.

“What made this restaurant is we worked as a family,” Leah Chase said. “It was always about family. The best thing in the world is family.”

That’s why more than 1,000 “extended family” members showed up for two days of events to honor the queen of Creole Cuisine. The main event was a star-studded gala and auction featuring a constellation of artists, musicians, celebrity chefs, politicians, business leaders and other dignitaries.

They came together for a reception and dinner prepared by a few of Leah Chase’s friends: celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Susan Spicer John Folse and the team of Marcus Samuelson and the Hyatt Regency Hotel’s executive chef John Concurrence. Guests could bid on a signed Hank Aaron baseball, jewelry from designer Mignon Faget or art from Clifton Webb, John Scott and other artists represented by The Stella Jones Gallery.

Among the guests were New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, state representatives Jared Brossett and Helena Moreno; City councilmembers Cynthia Hedge Morrell and Susan Guidry; Xavier University President Nor­man Francis; Tulane Univer­sity President Scott Cowen; Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Rev. Kevin Wildes. Video tributes came from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who was escorted to Dooky Chase by Gen. Russel Honore.

President Obama, who also dined at Dooky’s, and First Lady Michelle Obama sent well wishes from The White House. The Obamas pointed out that Leah Chase has witnessed great milestones in our nation’s history. They went on to say “Your story is an important part of the American narrative and we hope you will look back with joy and pride on the many contributions and memories made over the course of your life”

Memories were front and center for a series of “lunches” held at Dooky Chase prior to the gala. Each lunch, which stretched from morning till night, ended with a conversation with Mrs. Chase and her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr., discussing their faith and family, their close connections to artists, musicians and entertainers, as well as their community involvement.

Besides the presidential visits, Mr. and Mrs. Chase, recounted other famous guests like civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and every New Orleans mayor since Chep Morrison. Dooky’s was the favorite restaurant of leaders of the International Longshoremen’s Association. Kennedy family scion John F. Kennedy, Jr. stopped by with his then fiancée Carolyn Bessett. And thousands of New Orleans high schoolers ended prom night at Dooky’s.

Besides honoring Chef Leah Chase, the two-day celebration marked the launch of the Edgar “Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to “cultivate and support historically disenfranchised organizations by making significant contributions to education, creative and culinary arts and social justice.” Mrs. Chase’s children and grandchildren will play key roles running the foundation.

Official results are not yet available, but both events could raise at least $200,000 before expenses, setting the stage for more contributions to the Foundation. “I like the fact that the emphasis of this foundation is on the family,” said a donor who asked to remain anonymous.

For her part, Leah Chase said she appreciates the many well wishes for her birthday and the outpouring of support for the foundation. “I appreciate it,” she told The Louisiana Weekly. “Of course, I’m going to have to live 10 more years to pay you back,” she joked.

Then again, she means it.

This article was originally published in the January 14, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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