We know her best as one of New Orleans’ iconic chefs. She is often referred to as the "Queen of Creole Cuisine" - and there is so much more to discover about Chef Leah Chase.
Chef Leah, along with husband, Dooky, was also at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans.Attorneys, such as Thurgood Marshall, Revius Ortique, Jr., Ernest “Dutch” Morial and A. P. Tureaud were among the many leaders conferring about civil rights issues in the upstairs meeting rooms of Dooky Chase's Restaurant.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and a cadre of Freedom Riders met at the restaurant with New Orleans and Baton Rouge civil rights leaders to discuss the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott as a model their Freedom Riders campaign that began in Montgomery, AL bus station.
With this history as a backdrop, there is little question that Chef Leah is an ideal Honorary Chair for The Pro Bono Project’s (TPBP) 29th Annual Justice For All Ball (JFAB). Who knows the fight for justice better than Leah Chase?
“We are honored to have Mrs. Chase as our Honorary Chair this year. Her work, along with so many others during the 1960s, cracked open the long-closed doors of justice and civil rights for African-Americans and others.
"She is one of the few remaining living legends — a gem — of the Civil Rights Movement. There is no doubt that she can relate to The Project’s mission of helping those in need of civil legal services,” said JFAB Committee Chair, Dana Douglas, partner, Liskow & Lewis and TPBP Board member.
Bringing People Together
One of the hallmarks of Chef Leah’s life and career is her ability to bring people together – over great food – to tackle issues large and small.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was one of the only places where black and white New Orleanians could meet to discuss politics, economics, law, culture, and society before desegregation.
In the 1990s, Chef Leah hosted many meals for prominent business leaders in their efforts to develop a regional economic development plan to unify the efforts of nine parishes in attracting new business to the region.
Today, her restaurant continues to serve as meeting place and has served Presidents on both sides of the aisles—including both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In talking about the Justice For All Ball, Chef Leah sees it as a similar stage for bringing people together.
“As you know, my family and I have always viewed the arts—culinary and otherwise—as a universal way of bringing people together. This is one of the many reasons I am so excited to support this grand affair!
"Each year, the Justice For All Ball uses fine food, art, and live music to draw hundreds of lawyers, judges and private citizens together for a worthy cause,” said Chef Leah in a letter to JFAB supporters.
More than that, she noted, “The Project provides meaningful and life-changing services to many area residents in need who, but for the fine work of exceptional people, would have no ability to navigate the judicial system. I am excited because, for many years now, The Project has helped the working poor, low-income families, children, veterans and elderly clients’ access lawyers to help resolve civil legal issues with no regard to race or creed. Their doors are open to all." *
Supporting the Disenfranchised
Chef Leah, and her late husband, Dooky, the Chase family, and Dooky Chase's Restaurant were often at the center of helping those who were neglected, forgotten or ignored. Even in a city like New Orleans, where checkerboard neighborhoods existed long before desegregation was the law, one could not cross many lines in the light of day; many doors closed to those struggling to find a better way of life. But, to the Chases, the door was and is always open.
To further their commitment to those who are disenfranchised, Leah and Dooky, created the Edgar “Dooky”, Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation in 2013. According to their official website, The Edgar "Dooky" Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation was founded to "cultivate and support historically disenfranchised organizations by making significant contributions to education, creative and culinary arts, and social justice."
"Mrs. Chase's life reflects such a commitment to the same access to justice issues that The Project's clients face every day. When someone can’t access the justice system – because they cannot afford counsel, they are not equipped to represent themselves – they are in essence frozen in time, and they can’t move forward with their life. While the Constitution guarantees the right to representation in a criminal case, it does not guarantee the same in civil matters. A lifetime of actions by Mrs. Chase, her late husband Dooky, and many others, has helped to make an organization like The Project possible,” said The Project’s Executive Director, Jennifer Rizzo-Choi.
Unique chance to secure a snapshot of history
Now, Leah Chase is bringing the Chase Family legacy to the benefit of The Pro Bono Project. In addition to serving as Honorary Chair and helping to introduce the work of The Project to a wider array of New Orleanians, Chef Leah has asked her favorite portraitist to create something special for The Project.
New Orleans-born Gustave Blache, III, whose portrait of Mrs. Chase, “Cutting Squash" hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently completing a work slated as the highlight of the JFAB's live auction.
He also has pulled a limited edition of lithograph prints of Mrs. Chase’s portrait, “Pouring Oysters” of which 100 will be signed by BOTH the artist and Chef Leah for sale the night of the JFAB. A portion of the proceeds will go to The Project. Unsigned copies will also be available. [photos: Pouring Oysters & Cutting Squash] This is a unique chance for Ball attendees to acquire a one-of-a-kind original artwork and to also secure a signed copy of an iconic painting that has New Orleans ties.
Chef Leah has served celebrities and Presidents, politicians and business leaders and received more awards than we have room for in one article. At the same time, she has worked tirelessly for those who have had no place at the table.
There are so many layers to the life of Leah Chase, just like Gustave Blache’s paintings of her – she is movement, color, song, laughter, joy, and luckily for us all, still as feisty and committed as ever!!
This year's Justice For All Ball is truly a Chase Family affair. Daughter Leah Chase-Kamata will entertain guests at the Patron Party; son Edgar "Dooky" Chase, III serves on the JFAB Committee; and grandson, Edgar “Dook” Chase will offer fine cuisine from Dook’s Place. Make sure to place your bid on the Chase Family Basket!
Read more about Chef Leah Chase: Download Bio
* Clients must meet financial criteria and are screened to determine if they fall below the Federal Poverty Guidelines to be eligible for The Project’s services.