The heart and soul of New Orleans changed last night. We were made a lesser place. Chef Leah Chase passed last night. She was 96 years old. She lived a life of service and good works. She believed that food could bring us together.
Although Ms. Leah was the grande dame of Creole cooking, she was so much more. She opened her restaurant, Dookie Chase, to both white and black people during the Jim Crow Era, when that wasn’t allowed. Illegal in some places.
Her restaurant was a base where the Freedom Riders could eat, rest and plan.
She put Barrack Obama is his place for adding hot sauce to her gumbo without tasting it first.
She collected African and folk art. She was steeped in jazz. I always looked for her blessing whenever somebody new came into my life. Going to see her and eat her food was for me — New Orleanians — like going to church. It was a spiritual experience.
She made everybody feel at home when they entered her restaurant. Yet, whenever I ate there I made sure I was dressed nicely, even in the summer’s heat when you normally find me in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops.
I could go on and on.
I suspect that over the course of this week I will go on and on. It’s likely there will be unplanned second lines starting at Dookie Chase. There may even be God’s own jazz funeral. I’ve mostly retired from the street, but you know I’ll come out for all of whatever happens. If it doesn’t happen, that’s okay too. We’ll remember her in our own ways. We’ll tell Chef Leah stories. They will always be about goodness. About respect. About bringing people together. And, about the worth of working like a dog.
I, like most of New Orleans, will miss her. Her comforting clear eyed presence will be gone. She once said about rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina left us in tatters, “I suppose you should put on your pants and get to work.”
For those of you who want to know about the picture, I made it in 2002. On film. For a book project. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. My house had water, but it didn’t reach to the level of my film archives. No matter. With no air conditioning, mold grew everywhere including on the plastic base of film. I was determined to save this take. The book project take. The film was funky and smelly. Even the best scans couldn’t quite save it. The highlights blew out for no known reason. The film color changed as well. But, it’s the best I have. It’ll do.
When I made this picture Ms. Leah had just turned 80. I asked her what was next. She said that she would just keep cooking. At least until 85. She keep cooking until she was 96.
Rest in Heaven, Chef Leah.
You’ve earned it.