James Beard Foundation honors Leah Chase with Lifetime Achievement Award

Leah Chase has been receiving honors and awards for longer than some chefs and restaurateurs have been alive. Another is on the way, and it’s a big one.

The James Beard Foundation announced that Chase, matriarch of the Dooky Chase’s Restaurant family, will receive its 2016 Lifetime Achievement award. She will be honored at the group’s annual awards ceremony, scheduled for May 2 in Chicago.

The James Beard Foundation annually bestows the honor on “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,” according to a release.

Chase turned 93 earlier this month, on Twelfth Night, and she celebrated with a party that also marked the 75th anniversary of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. A broad spectrum of New Orleans people packed the house for the special dinner at the Orleans Avenue landmark, with all eyes on Chase. Some led prayers, others raised toasts and some offered appreciations for her impact on their lives.

“It makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I have accomplished something, like I have performed service to someone else,” Chase said in an interview, when asked about her influence on others. “When people come back and tell me they remember something I told them, that makes me so happy. I stuck with them in some way.”

Beginning in the 1940s, Chase and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase II began transforming their family’s modest neighborhood eatery into what has become one of the most storied and admired restaurants in New Orleans.

The restaurant quickly became a hub for the city’s African American community, and during segregation it also gained a following among black luminaries in the arts, sports and politics who visited New Orleans. By the 1950s, with the civil rights movement gaining ground in New Orleans, the restaurant became a meeting place for activists and civic leaders both black and white. While this defied segregation laws, the police didn’t intervene here.

Chase later earned a reputation as a patron of the arts, encouraging and supporting emerging talent, and today the walls of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant display an acclaimed collection of work by African American artists.

Chase is the second New Orleans restaurateur to receive the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award. Ella Brennan, of the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants, received the honor in 2009.

The James Beard Foundation plans to announce semifinalists for this year’s culinary awards on Feb. 17, with finalists to be named on March 15.

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.

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