Chef Leah Chase.

Leah Chase.

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.


The staff of Cafe Reconcile
The staff of Cafe Reconcile

Cafe Reconcile. I’ve written about this restaurant in the past. But, it’s getting ready to re-open after a lengthy renovation. So, I thought it was a good time to show you another picture and talk about the changes. But, first. Cafe Reconcile is a project started in 1996 by Father Harry Thompson S.J, then pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish and Craig Cuccia and Tim Falcon to address the generational problems in Central City. They were joined by like-minded community folks. The established a neighborhood presence with a sweet shop called “Sweet T,” which became a place for local youth to hang out, make friends and avoid negative situations. With Sweet T as a foundation, Cafe Reconcile opened on September 5, 2000. It’s earned praise from national, regional and local critics. More importantly, its development program has graduated 600 formerly at risk students. They’ve learned basic life skills, interpersonal skills and trade skills. They staff many of the city’s professional kitchens today.

And… the future. When Cafe Reconcile reopens it will have five floors. It will be open for breakfast lunch and dinner. Seating will increase by 75%. It will double the number of students served to 300 annually. It will have a hospital-certified catering kitchen, event space for up to 150. It will feature classes for parenting, GED-preparation, computer instruction, financial education, resume writing among other things. The list goes on and on.

Now. You know that isn’t my writing style. It’s Cafe Reconcile’s more formal style. They wrote it effectively and concisely. I edited it some to fit Storyteller. More importantly. If it sounds I like this place, I do. Not only is the food great Southern comfort food, but service is excellent. The kids work hard and it shows. Their lives have changed. For the better.

If you’d like to learn more go here.

The picture. Hmmmm… The technical information almost seems irrelevant to the content. It’s really just about me working close to the subject and waiting for the right moment. Funny — spell check wants to change “Hmmmm…” into “Ham.” I suppose that’s okay. It’s food.

The Mardi Gras Indians were out today. For once, I actually planned well enough to get to their staging area early enough to make pictures of them getting dressed and preparing to walk. I even had a chance to talk with Indian Red, who is sort of the default chief of chiefs. This younger indian is really a spy boy.  He leads his tribe and protects them from harm.