Courtesy of the White House Archives
Not many of us will get to reign over our careers the way Leah Chase did: The “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” who died June 1, 2019 at age 96, was celebrated not only for serving up some of New Orleans’ finest gumbo (sans hot sauce, Obama), but also for being a steadfast voice in the African-American community. Her upscale French Quarter restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, was a gathering place for Freedom Riders and members of the NAACP in the 1960s. It's still considered one of the most culturally significant restaurants in New Orleans.
Over the course of her career, Chase fed Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Ray Charles, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and countless others. She wrote books, hosted television shows, and promoted African-American artists by lining the walls of her restaurant with their works. (This from a woman who, because of segregation, didn’t set foot in an art museum until she was 54.) So famous was her personality and passion for her community that Disney even crowned Chase a princess, basing Tiana from The Princess and the Frog on her.
Still, there’s more: Chase’s induction into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010; her honorary degrees from universities such as Tulane and Dillard; and her permanent gallery in the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Clearly, Chase was a rockstar.
Beyond animation and awards, it was Chase’s impact on women and people of color that gave her legacy innumerable staying power. She was a fierce advocate for both in her own way, often offering young women in her industry this advice: “You have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog.”
That advice might ring true for you and it might not, but there’s no question that Chase was thinking critically about what her role was in the world and how she could use her success to lift up others. To honor her legacy, we pulled together some of Chase’s quotes about life and work that continue to inspire us.
On Embracing Our Differences
“I’ve had groups here that I don’t agree with, but I still invited them in as long as they followed my rules. You can still talk to people even if you disagree with them and you can listen to them. When you spend time with each other maybe you see something different.”
“Food builds big bridges. If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together."
"We have to pay attention to one another, regardless of how someone may look or act, look again. Looking at people is like looking at art. I may look at a painting and dislike it because I don't understand it but then I'll look deeper and I'll see things better."
On Working Together
"I’m not a leader, I’m a good follower and I can help uplift a good leader. The truth is not everybody can be a leader. But if your job is to help that leader you’ll go up with her, you’ll go up with him. You treat people right and you try to make a difference, and when you work together everyone will benefit."
"When someone helps you, then that means one thing, all they expect in return is for you to show them what you're doing and for you to help someone else."
"We still have a long way to go but if we work together and we work hard, you'll see black people in positions you never thought we'd be in. I thought I would never see a black President."
"You worry too much about what goes into your mouth and not enough about what comes out of it."
On Building a Career
"I tell people all the time, you have to be in love with that pot. You have to put all your love in that pot. If you're in a hurry, just eat your sandwich and go. Don't even start cooking, because you can't do anything well in a hurry. I love food. I love serving people. I love satisfying people."
“Everyone can cook. If you try. If you put a little love into it."
“Chairs are not pretty when they’re empty. Chairs are pretty when you have people in them.”
“You think you lose big when you lose your house, but here we lose a person, a person that could help us uplift everything.”