Thomas Jefferson changed America with words; chef Leah Chase changed America with food.
This amazing lady from New Orleans stood by her belief that all men (and women) are created equal at a time when this country remained segregated. She opened her restaurant doors to all at the risk of being arrested because, and as she told us, “it was the right thing to do.” She was fond of saying that food crosses all boundaries.
Leah, affectionately referred to as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” passed away at age 96 on Saturday in New Orleans. To know Leah is to love Leah, and we feel blessed to have known, and loved, her.
In 1996, when we started our restaurant, Joseph Decuis, our chef introduced us to Leah and we became great friends. We visited her on trips to New Orleans and when she visited here, she always brought food, joy and inspiration. In fact, before we met her, she had visited Fort Wayne several times, always willing to use her stature and food to help raise money for good causes.
There was something incredibly special about Leah. She was humble and unassuming but also sharp and decisive. She loved to talk and was always willing to share her rich life lessons. We loved that she would brag about how Fort Wayne was one of her favorite cities in America and when we asked why, she said, “The people in Fort Wayne uplift you. They are kind people, the best people I ever met in my life; good, kind people.”
We were concerned when Hurricane Katrina hit and learned that her restaurant, Dooky Chase's, had been ruined. We asked her what she was going to do and she said, “Honey, I have no choice but to rebuild and to open up soon. I have a lot of people to feed.”
Leah became the inspirational voice for rebuilding New Orleans and an inspiration to all to have courage to face and beat adversity.
Joseph Decuis, along with our customers, raised money to help. After her restaurant was rebuilt, and people from Fort Wayne would dine at Dooky Chase's, Leah would show them her beautiful new chairs and say, “The chairs were a gift from my friends in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I could have bought cheaper chairs, but I wanted the finest.” And then she would always say, “Thank you, Fort Wayne.”
Leah cooked for presidents, celebrities and guests from around the world. Her restaurant helped break down discrimination and was a driving force in the 1960s civil rights movement. For Leah, food was her way to make the world a better place.
Leah's famous quote says it all: “I believe that food builds big bridges. If you can eat with someone, you can learn from them, and when you learn from someone, you can make big changes. We changed the course of America in this restaurant over bowls of gumbo. We can talk to each other and relate to each other when we eat together.”
We believe Leah exemplified culinary diplomacy in its most noble form.
We visited Leah at her restaurant last summer. She was in the kitchen holding court and giving orders to her staff. She stopped everything to talk with us. Such a gracious lady. When we asked how she was feeling, she answered, “I'm still steppin' at 95 and a half.” She was very proud of that half. We also loved that she said, “There's no excuse for not being kind. If you are kind in life, good things will come your way.”
We'd say she is proof of that.
As we left her restaurant, I looked at Alice and said, “We have just spent time with a living saint.” On behalf of Fort Wayne, we love you, Leah, and thank you for enriching our lives and making the world a better place.
Alice and Pete Eshelman are the founders and owners of Joseph Decuis in Roanoke.