Professional educators vigorously defend the title of teacher and rightly so. Teachers perfect their craft through their daily interactions with children. But not all educators have teaching degrees. There are teachers in our lives who don’t earn a paycheck from a school district but have no less impact in practice. Ultimately, good teachers are characterized by the longevity of their lessons. By this standard, there are teachers who practice outside the schoolhouse to whom entire communities are forever indebted — like famed New Orleans chef and restaurateur Leah Chase.
Ms. Leah, as she was affectionately called, died this past weekend at the age of 96 with her family at her side. To most, including past presidents, celebrities and the regular folk who visited her restaurant, Dooky Chase’s — named after her late husband and former business partner — she had more than earned her title as master chef and Queen of Creole Cuisine. Almost to her last days, you could find her in the kitchen whipping up New Orleans standards: red beans and rice, gumbo, gumbo z’herbes, shrimp Clemenceau, fried chicken and hot sausage. However, Ms. Leah also spent a lot time in the dining room — her classroom — where she imparted unforgettable lessons to generations of diners, just like me. Anyone who has had a conversation with Ms. Leah will tell you that she was a teacher par excellence.
Chase’s physical presence may be gone, but her lessons will last like humidity in the New Orleans air.
Born in Madisonville, Louisiana, in 1923, Ms. Leah moved to New Orleans as a child to live with relatives because her hometown didn’t have a school for black children. She eventually graduated from St. Mary’s Academy, a private school for black girls. In 1946 she married Dooky Chase, and soon after took over the restaurant her in-laws had founded as a sandwich stand. The restaurant quickly became a go-to spot, especially for the black community. However, it was in the 1950s and ’60s, during the Civil Rights movement, when African Americans held sometimes clandestine meetings in the restaurant, that Ms. Leah transitioned from accommodating locals to nurturing a movement. Ms. Leah was right there in the mix with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders who held interracial strategy meetings in an upstairs room to discuss black voter registration drives in neighboring Alabama. Ms. Leah fed Freedom Riders who rode interstate buses throughout the segregated South in the early 1960s to demand the integration of local public buses.
Dooky Chase’s became the unofficial gathering place for Civil Rights meetings and, later, for organizing around black issues in general. I met the famous chef at one such event, a gathering for black educators. One of her grandchildren, who I taught in graduate school, introduced me to Ms. Leah. She had seen me on a local television station talking about race relations in the city. She encouraged me to continue “fighting with facts.” During multiple subsequent visits to the restaurant, Ms. Leah talked to me about school reform in New Orleans. On one occasion, she told me that battle for control of New Orleans was being fought in its public schools. She was a staunch critic of the racism inherent in many of the reforms that were taking place in the last decade and a half, including the increase in the number of charter schools, the breakup of school zones and the summary firing of 7,000 teachers, almost all of them black. But Ms. Leah was able to put all these issues into historical context: She served the teachers who dealt with the struggles of integration in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Ms. Leah was chef and teacher: She fed my stomach and my intellect. She recognized the struggle I was engaged in, as I defended the fired black teachers while demanding structural change. Leaning in to catch her every word as she stood behind the buffet line, I’d do my best to ignore the delicious smells emanating from the food trays. She told me that black children have never been given a fighting chance, that they have never had access to quality schools, and that the loss of black teachers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would only make things worse.
Ms. Leah was committed to community activism and had a nuanced understanding of politics and education. To her, politics, education and food were deeply personal. To this day, I do my best to address racism regardless of the reform of the day because of Ms. Leah.
After our talks, she would always check on me to see if I had enjoyed the meal, which I always did. One day I realized that in the same way that Ms. Leah engaged with me, she had taught thousands of others, including luminaries such as writer James Baldwin, entertainers like Lena Horne and Ray Charles, Mayor Marc Morial and President Barack Obama.
For her contributions, Ms. Leah has been awarded honorary degrees from Tulane, Loyola, Dillard and Johnson & Wales universities, Our Lady of Holy Cross College and Madonna College, according to The Times-Picayune. In addition, Xavier University rewarded Ms. Leah with the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, its highest honor. The accolades are numerous, but my favorite tribute is that Ms. Leah was the inspiration for the first African-American princess in a Disney film: Princess Tiana in the animated movie “The Princess and the Frog.” Without question, Ms. Leah is royalty.
Ms. Leah was always available for a great word over a wonderful plate. Ms. Leah, thank you for your service. Rest in peace Leah Chase.