Chef to the Freedom Riders: How the 'Queen of Creole Cuisine' fed the Civil Rights Movement

Susan Saulny, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

Chef Leah Chase, or as she’s widely known for her famous New Orleans cooking, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” quite literally helped to feed the civil rights movement.

As the chef and owner of the renowned New Orleans restaurant named after her husband’s father, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, Chase’s family took great risk in braving the South’s infamous “Jim Crow” laws to allow black and white organizers of the civil rights movement to use the popular restaurant as a safe meeting place.

“You just did the work you thought you were expected to do,” Chase said. “Anything you thought that could better people, you just did it.”

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Chase sat down with “Power Players” to remember the days when Freedom Riders worked from the upstairs level of her restaurant to plan their bus routes through the segregated South.

“I knew I had to feed them, and I knew I could not do what they were doing,” Chase said. “My whole life, honey, was this restaurant.”

Though the Chase family was unwavering in their commitment to the movement, the restaurant did become a target. On one occasion, a bomb was thrown at the restaurant from a passing car. But fortunately, Chase is quick to follow-up, “no one was hurt.”

Beyond its role as a meeting place for civil rights planners, Chase’s restaurant became a popular New Orleans destination for black celebrities, including the likes of Ray Charles and Duke Ellington.

“Ray was good,” Chase said of musician Ray Charles. “I loved him, because I like people with emotional strength, with physical strength. Now, he was blinder than blind, but that didn't stop Ray from doing what he thought he had to do, or contributing where he thought he could. I like that in people.”

And in more recent years, word of Chase’s Creole cooking has even spread to presidents. Chase has fed every president since Bill Clinton.

She told “Power Players” with pride the story of when President Obama visited her restaurant – remembering how she scolded the commander-in-chief for committing a cardinal sin against her fine Creole cuisine: putting hot sauce in her gumbo.

“I said, ‘Mr. Obama, you don't put that stuff in my gumbo,’” Chase recalled. “He hadn't tasted it, and he's putting the hot sauce in my gumbo. So everybody -- everybody in the city -- knew that, ‘Ms. Dooky, you told him off, Ms. Dooky.’ I mean, they were always glad when I came out on top, you know.”

Of President Bush, Chase described him as “one of kindest people I've ever met” and remembered one occasion when he called on her to prepare a Creole-style breakfast for a meeting with the prime minister of Canada and president of Mexico.

“He loved it,” Chase said. “I served him braised quail with plum jelly and grits and breakfast shrimp and all kinds of things for that. So he loved that. But he was the kindest man to me.”

To hear more about Chase’s life story, and the improbable path that she took in becoming a world-renowned chef, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Cindy Smith and Scott Bell contributed to this episode.