Fellow chefs, musicians, family and friends were among hundreds of admirers who filed through a New Orleans church on Monday to pay last respects to Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” who ran a family restaurant where civil rights strategies were discussed over gumbo and fried chicken in the 1950s and ’60s.
The crowds formed long lines in advance of a funeral at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. The services were being held just blocks from Dooky Chase’s, where Leah Chase earned renown over the years as a creole chef, civil rights icon and patron of the arts. Chase also became known as a symbol of New Orleans resilience when she reopened the restaurant after it was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
Chase died June 1 at age 96.
“I don’t know if God realizes he’s about to gain 20 pounds,” joked Ti Martin, co-proprietor of Commander’s Palace restaurant and a member of New Orleans famed Brennan family of restaurateurs. “I can count on one hand the number of people who inspire me as much as this lady. And I wouldn’t need all my fingers.”
Martin stood in a line that snaked around a city block and that never seemed to shorten. Throughout the sweltering morning, the funeral drew a diverse crowd of local politicians, notable chefs and musicians, including Marsalis family patriarch Ellis Marsalis.
“I started eating in the restaurant in the ’60s when I was a little kid,” recalled Johnathan Bloom of New Orleans, who said his mother was a friend of Leah Chase.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell said he met and learned from an older generation of politicians while sitting at Dooky Chase’s — and heard a multitude of stories. “It took very little to prompt her to go into very lengthy stories about all the different people,” Morrell recalled. “She remembered and shook hands with every single person that came through her restaurant.”
“It’s impossible to overstate what she meant to our city,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said during a rosary service ahead of a midday Mass.
The Mass was to be followed by a dirge procession to Dooky Chase’s, a motorcade to a local cemetery, and finally a traditional New Orleans “second line” parade — with watchers falling in behind the procession — to the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Monday’s will be the last in a series of goodbyes to Chase. A brass band led a parade by the restaurant last Monday, and a public memorial was held at Xavier University on Saturday.