Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Queen of Creole Cuisine Leah Chase, receives national American Dream Award

Seeing Mrs. Leah Chase in action at Dooky Chase restaurant is quite amazing. Recently celebrating her 89th birthday, Chase has an oral history of events unlike any you will find in text books. Often, when the Louisiana Restaurant Association staff stops by the restaurant, she’s either in the kitchen, hard at work preparing gumbos, crawfish etouffee, fried chicken and catfish and an array of traditional Creole delicacies she’s been soulfully preparing for some 70 years.
Chase was honored by the National Restaurant Association April 17 in DC as one to celebrate for achieving the American Dream in the restaurant industry.  Overcoming extreme obstacles through the Civil Rights Movement, many people of different ethnicities found solace, a hot meal and kind words at Leah’s Dooky Chase Restaurant.
Leah Chase and daughter Stella Reese
following Chase's American Dream
Award acceptance speech April 17.
“We’ve come such a long way in this country,” said Chase in her acceptance speech. “I have always followed my father’s advice, ‘Pray, work and do for others,’ in that order and it’s never failed me.”

During her career, she has fed U.S. Presidents, dignitaries and served her community on countless boards to further education, arts and the restaurant industry. She’s come to the aid of others during their time of need and the industry has rallied around her during her time of struggle.
“Katrina really did a number on the restaurant and the community that surrounds it,” she recalls. “The number of restaurateurs, chefs and companies that came to my aid was truly remarkable. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to repay them for their generosity and kindness.”

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond presented Chase with the American Dream Award at the Gala during the 2012 NRA Public Affairs Conference. In addition to the award, a $2,500 scholarship was given to a student in her honor.
“Look at Cedric,” Chase said during her speech. “I’ve known him since he was a little boy and it’s amazing to see the success he’s had with helping the people of New Orleans be heard in Washington.”

Her tell it like it is style has only gotten more pointed as she’s gracefully aged. During a call with NRA Senior Director of Community Relations Alyssa Prince following the evening’s events, she laughed as she shared Chase’s comments during the Gala rehearsal.
“We were on stage and I asked her if she’d like a podium, a handheld or a lavaliere microphone,” said Prince. “She looked at me seriously and said, ‘what’s all the fuss? It’s not like I’m giving a sermon’.”

In 2009, when her restaurant reopened following Hurricane Katrina, the LRA was at the Holy Thursday lunch where she welcomed hundreds of diners into the newly-renovated restaurant and served her famous Gumbo Z’herbes and bread pudding.
“We brought her an LRA logo for her front door and she pealed the back and placed it right on her chef coat,” said Wendy Waren, Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) VP of Communications. “The next day she was on the cover of the Times-Picayune smiling from ear to ear with her LRA logo over her heart.”

Later that year, she was named the LRA’s Restaurateur of the Year. To get her to the Gala, she was told that the LRA would be honoring ChefJohn Folse, a close, personal friend of Chase’s and she had to be there.
“When the announcement was made she looked at me with the ‘you got me’ expression,” said Waren. “It was a great moment in Louisiana’s culinary history and she truly deserves the American Dream Award.”

With the countless awards and honorary degrees she’s received, her style remains no fuss. She’s diligent, serious and has more stories about the times and challenges of New Orleanians, Louisiana and the struggles of the scores of people she’s encountered. She is a true treasure of an individual, restaurateur and member of her community.

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