The idea that food brings people together is now one of the cornerstones of food culture. It’s the access point for finding common ground. This was not always agreed upon as a good thing.
One of the sins of segregation was to keep black New Orleans and white New Orleans apart, even as they ate much the same food in a city unlike anywhere else.
One reason chef Leah Chase became an icon in New Orleans was her conviction to defy that law, serving a higher purpose while serving her entire community. She died Saturday at 96.
At her family’s restaurant Dooky Chase’s, she set the table for progress and she set an example that can still guide us.
Laws change. Politics change. Humanity does not change. Leah Chase showed us what is possible by choosing the better part of it.
She believed, to use her own words, that “food builds big bridges,” and she proved it when the stakes were highest.
Through the generations that followed, she inspires with her generosity of spirit, her character and the high standards she kept and demanded.
She had a voice that carried because she built a stage to deliver it, and she used that voice to uplift others. That is leadership, and it's the kind we desperately need to see exercised more often.
Leah Chase brought joy to many, but she was not all smiles and sunshine. She spoke her mind and spared no one’s feelings. Back in 2012, when she was being feted with one award after the next, Leah Chase told me something I’ll never forget.
She said: "If I'm getting all of this attention, does it mean other people need to step up more? Does it mean somebody else isn't doing their work?"
Leah Chase is gone. Her legacy remains an open challenge. Most of us will not succeed in living up to it, but the world will be a better place if we try.