Leah Chase, in an image from Brian Lanker's 1988 photo series I Dream a World, in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art
© Brian Lanker Archive
The New Orleans chef and “Queen of Creole Cuisine” Leah Chase, behind the citys legendary restaurant Dooky Chase's, where she showed her significant collection of African American art, died last Saturday, 1 June, aged 96. “New Orleans has lost one of its most beloved personalities, Leah Chase, a woman whose passion for cooking and hospitality was matched only by her devotion to the arts,” Susan Taylor, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, where Chase was an active board member and volunteer for decades, said in a letter posted on the museum's website yesterday.
Chase was born in Madisonville, Louisiana on 6 January, 1923. Though she was not interested in cooking growing up, she said in a 2015 interview with the Global Culinary Innovators Association, her work as a waitress in New Orleanss French Quarter “made [her] want a restaurant of [her] own”. She said she was lucky to marry Dooky Chase, in 1945, whose mother owned a sandwich shop that became Dooky Chases Restaurant in 1941. “In the black community you had nothing but little sandwich shops, because everybody cooked at home,” she explained. “Nobody ate out: [because of] segregation, there was nowhere for you to eat.”
A civil rights activist, Chase went on to serve civil rights leaders, presidents and major cultural figures including the singer Sarah Vaughan, the writer James Baldwin and the producer Quincy Jones in her restaurant—which Ray Charles name-dropped in a song.
Chase began collecting art around 1972 and showing it in her restaurant. “People didnt have [art by African Americans] their galleries,” she said in a 2008 interview with Doug McCash, the art critic of the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune. “So I would put it up in here so people could see it.” One of her favourite pieces and among the first she acquired, she said, was a work by Elizabeth Catlett, which the artist sold her to her for $300. Other artists she collected include Jacob Lawrence and John T. Biggers.
“When people come in [the restaurant] and say, Oh you have a lot of nice pictures, I dont like that, no— Its not a picture, its somebodys work, its an artists thoughts,” she said. “But they learn its more than a picture and it talks to you… I dont care who did it, if it talks to you, thats what you should hang up and thats what I try to have—art that talks to me.”
Chase did not enter a museum until she was in her 50s, having lived through the era of segregation, but became a member of the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NoRead More – Source