This week we celebrate the 95th birthday of one of the city's most beloved and respected chefs, Leah Chase. It is fitting that someone so identified with New Orleans was born on one of the city's special days, Twelfth Night. Born Jan. 6, 1923, young Leah Lange was raised in Madisonville, then returned to her hometown of New Orleans to attend high school at St. Mary's Academy. Her early career included waiting tables in French Quarter restaurants, where she developed a love for food and hospitality. In 1946, she married musician Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, whose family opened Dooky Chase's Restaurant on Orleans Avenue in 1941. When Leah got into the kitchen, she upgraded the place from a tavern that sold po-boys and lottery tickets to a restaurant that served Creole cuisine to African-American customers in the days of segregation. The restaurant became a landmark in the civil rights era, hosting meetings of local and national activists. Chase has served two U.S. presidents at her world-famous eatery: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both visited the restaurant, which was rebuilt by her staff, fellow chefs and volunteers after being destroyed when the levees failed following Hurricane Katrina.
Among many honors, she was named Gambit's New Orleanian of the Year in 2015, and in 2016 she earned a Lifetime Achieve- ment Award from the James Beard Foundation.