James Beard Award goes to Queen of Creole Cuisine

James Beard Award goes to Queen of Creole Cuisine
Leah Chase at her NOLA restaurant. Photo: Pelican Publishing Company

The “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase has been named the recipient of the 2016 James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement award. The award is bestowed upon a person in the industry whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and think about food in America.

Chase will be will be honored at this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards on Monday, May 2, 2016 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Chef, restaurateur, author and TV personality, Chase cooks up her gumbos, jambalayas, po' boy sandwiches, fried chicken and lots more at Dooky Chase's Restaurant--a soul food establishment in New Orleans that has been called the best of the best for Creole cuisine.

Back in 1941 Dooky Chase was a sandwich shop run by her future husband's parents. In 1946, when Leah married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., the two immediately began cooking together at the restaurant.

Dooky Chase's Restaurant interior with art collection on walls

Dooky Chase's Restaurant interior with art collection on walls

At a time when New Orleans was deeply divided by segregation, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was one of the only public places in New Orleans where mixed race groups could meet.

Through the years, the pair worked hard as they shared their dream to make the world a better place.

That dream and vision helped them transform the space that at various times served as a sandwich shop, a barroom, and a lottery ticket outlet into a sit-down white-table cloth restaurant brimming with Creole cuisine, African-American art, and jazz.

Her art collection, displayed on the walls of her restaurant, was at one time considered New Orleans’s best collection of African-American art.

Over the years, the restaurant became (and still is) a must-stop for politicians, musicians, visual artists, and literary giants including:

President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, Hank Aaron, Ernest Gaines, Quincy Jones, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, James Baldwin and Ray Charles to name a few.

Leah with Obama as he enjoys a meal at her NOLA restaurant

Leah with Obama as he enjoys a meal at her NOLA restaurant

When the always humble Chase, who turned 93 this January, was told she was to receive the award she said, "I am overwhelmed to receive such a prestigious award, I never dreamt of receiving such an award for doing what I love to do: cook and serve others.”

As a cookbook writer and winner of countless food and humanitarian awards, Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010.

Leah's most recent book "I'm Still Cookin'" (and she is) was published in 2011. The book contains many of her famous recipes along with reflections on her life--or as she calls it "from the strawberry patch to the Smithsonian." Chicago Eats will be reviewing the book soon.

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