NATCHITOCHES – “People have to eat,” said Chef Leah Chase, the well-known New Orleans writer, TV personality and ambassador for Louisiana culture and cuisine, during a guest lecture at Northwestern State University Sept. 19. Chase spoke to a capacity crowd, discussing her life, cooking and how food brings people together.
At 94, Chase lectures with sass, humor and wisdom. Since she began cooking in the 1940s, she has prepared meals for presidents, activists and international dignitaries in her family’s restaurant, Dooky Chase, but finds the most meaning in helping the everyday people around her.
“Presidents come and go, but it’s the regular people who make you. It’s the everyday people you feed and the food inspires them to do better. Then they are ready to go to work,” she said.
Northwestern State’s School of Business/Department of Hospitality Management and Tourism sponsored the lecture to raise money for a scholarship named for Chase. On hand to assist with the cooking demonstration was Terriann Marchand, a recent graduate of NSU’s culinary arts program who grew up in Chase’s New Orleans neighborhood. HMT students served Chicken Clemenceau and peach cobbler to guests at the lecture.
Chase went to work as a waitress in the French Quarter as a teenager, never having seen the inside of a restaurant before. After marrying Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, she worked to transform his mother’s poboy stand into a restaurant that not only became an important part of the Civil Rights movement and an anchor of the neighborhood but also advanced African American cooking and art.
“In my dining room, we changed the course of America,” she said, indicating that many plans were hatched there over a bowl of gumbo and fried chicken. The Dooky Chase restaurant flooded after Hurricane Katrina, but devoted supporters rallied to raise funds to help with the reopening.
Chase told students that the service industry is a good one and getting a business degree, along with a culinary arts degree is advantageous.
“Hospitality is what makes our state, our food and our hospitality. We have the best food in the country,” Chase said.
Chase has been the recipient of a multitude of awards and honors. She was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010 and earned the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. She was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2000 and has received several honorary degrees.
HMT Administrators ended the lecture by announcing the recipient of the Chef Leah Chase Scholarship, presented to Jeremy Aaron of Natchitoches. Aaron is pursuing the culinary arts concentration in the HMT program and was awarded the scholarship based on a high GPA in culinary arts courses, leadership and teamwork in and out of the classroom.
Information on Northwestern State’s HMT program is available at hmt.nsula.edu.