The world lost one of its warmest souls yesterday — the great Leah Chase. A dynamic presence, a brilliant chef, a positive force and remarkable woman, Leah passed yesterday at the age of 96 years young. Her legendary restaurant, Dooky Chase, is a New Orleans institution, serving some of the finest Creole cuisine in the world. "It's all about the gumbo," Leah explained. "Everybody makes a gumbo their own way. From their own backgrounds. We learn to mix those foods together into something all our own. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo." And indeed, she did!
Celebrities, royalty, and several Presidents have all tasted the culinary talents of Leah Chase. Patrons, friends and fans from around the world have her gumbo shipped to them (on one visit, Leah was working on a pot of gumbo to be sent out for Quincy Jones in Los Angeles). Her vibrant restaurant was the unofficial headquarters for the civil rights marches in New Orleans — a meeting place to find solidarity and sustenance in uncertain times. Her renowned art collection — many pieces given to her as payment for the food she shared with starving artists — is as visually tasty as her food, and the lively clientele keep coming back time and time again to taste the culinary magic of Leah Chase.
It was my great honor to spend quite a bit of time with Leah during our various campaigns for both the film & DVD releases of Disney's The Princess & The Frog. She served as the inspiration for the film's lead character Tiana and her dream to open her own restaurant. Just a few moments into our first phone call and I could easily see why John & Ron (Musker & Clements — directors of The Princess & The Frog) were drawn to Leah and her tasty stories. Though I warned her I was 'culinarily-challenged', Leah continued undaunted. "Look at me, at my age — there's always something new to learn!" This opened the door for a sweet friendship over the years as I made a number of visits to New Orleans to interview and dine with Leah at her restaurant.
Filled with flavorful sayings just as tasty as her dishes, Leah was a genuine spirit. We talked about everything, and I quickly learned — with Leah, it always came back to food. When cautioning me against those who would seem less than what appears, she declared: "Honey, having recipes doesn't make you a chef — any more than preaching sermons on Sundays makes you a saint." When asked what the secret ingredient was to her life and success, she responded: "I love people. That's the most important thing."
I even had the rare opportunity to step into her kitchen on several occasions to stir a few pots of her powerful gumbo alongside this master chef (usually with a number of hungry journalists in tow). This tiny, gracious woman was a powerhouse. It was a joy to witness her take the most jaded journalists and make 'em 'cook' -— "Get your hands outta-your-pockets now," (a firm command set within her gentle N'Orleans drawl) "...and come stir these pots!" Once their hands were in the mix, she continued to charm with the magic of her recipe for life: "I love to feed people and I love to do what I do. If you make people happy — that's it!"
Leah knew the power of her work. "Food builds bridges," she declared. "We all love to eat and if you eat with someone, you can learn from them. When you learn from someone, change happens." Wise words which Leah put into daily practice with the diverse range of international and hungry patrons who visited her restaurant. As she frequently noted: "Food is life and life is to be enjoyed!"
I treasure these lessons dearly. I'm still not the best cook, but that never hindered Leah — she knew my strengths were elsewhere and was always so grateful for the light I cast on her through the media. As I continue in life with all that I do, I am a better person because of all that I learned — about food, life and living — while cooking with Leah Chase.