NOMA Gala Celebrates Chef Leah Chase’s Ninth Decade

By Doug McCash,

It’s unusual for the New Orleans Museum of Art to schedule a gala on a Monday night, but that’s the way chef Leah Chase wanted it. After all, most of her restaurant-world colleagues are off on Mondays, so they more easily could attend the party celebrating her 90th year (she was born Jan. 6, 1923) and the debut of “Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III, “ a series of 20 intimate portraits of the legendary lady behind Dooky Chase restaurant.

The 71-year-old Orleans Avenue landmark is known for its historic role as a meeting place during the civil rights era, the extensive collection of African-American art that lines the walls of the dining rooms, not to mention the authentic Creole cuisine still prepared by Chase.

It also is unusual for the guest of honor at a gala to provide the food, but Chase insisted. “It’s the least I can do, “ she said. “They’re working so hard. I would feel guilty not doing anything.” In the days before the gala, Chase said she was composing a party menu that included chicken pasta, smoked salmon, caviar pies and “maybe a daube glace.” The evening’s entertainment also is a Chase family affair, with music provided by Leah’s daughter, well-known jazz singer Leah Chase-Kamata.

Chase said her relationship with the museum goes back to 1973 when businesswoman Celestine Cook nominated her for a seat on NOMA’s board of trustees. Chase, who had scant experience in the art world, was reluctant. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this, ‘ “ she recalled. Cook advised that serving on the board was “going to be good for your business, “ Chase said.

To her surprise, she was elected to the board for a three-year term, and, at the end of that period, she was invited to be a trustee for life. Chase said that Cook not only introduced her to museum board membership, she introduced her to the works of African-American artists, including Bill Hutson, Jacob Lawrence and John Biggers. Biggers, Chase said, once traded her artwork for gumbo. With the advice of other New Orleans art lovers, Chase eventually lined the restaurant’s walls with what may be the city’s best-known collection of African-American art.

“I’ve been the luckiest person in the world, “ she said. “People who crossed my path were people who helped me grow.”

The museum celebrated Chase’s 75th birthday with a purposeful party at the City Park institution. Sale of tickets to that event went to the purchase of a painting by African-American artist Barbara Chase-Riboud. Chase said she provided the food for that party, too. “I’ll do it for my 100th, too; how about that?” she said. Monday’s event also is a focused fund-raiser. Part of the $75 admission price will be used to establish the Leah Chase Art Purchase Fund to acquire African-American artworks for the museum.

One of the evening’s biggest treats will be in a second-floor gallery, where guests will be given an artistic glimpse of Chase in her domain, the busy kitchen of her restaurant. Gustave Blache III, a New Orleans-born artist who now lives in Brooklyn, spent two years visiting Chase’s kitchen to soak up the vibe, then poured his inspiration into a suite of 20 dinner plate-sized oil paintings that capture the unseen labor that underlies Dooky Chase’s seven decades of success.

Blache imbued the paintings with an intimate feel, but they are far from sentimental. The cool light, spare compositions and Chase’s candid poses lend a sense of unglamorous reality to the small genre scenes. Blache said that part of the challenge was capturing Chase as she worked, without interfering with the action. “The kitchen is a bit cramped, “ he said in a February interview. “I was very aware of not trying to impede her. You do not want to be the person in her way.”

At the close of 2011, one of Blache’s paintings, titled “Cutting Squash, “ was accepted by the prestigious National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution. In the quietly powerful piece, the iconic chef, wearing a pale violet baseball cap, concentrates on slicing vegetables, as steam rises from pots in the background. In a February interview, Chase coyly commented on the authenticity of Blache’s renderings. “I told him, ‘You could have made me look like Halle Berry or Lena Horne, ‘ “ she said, —’‘but you made it look like me.’ “

Blache, who attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, said the Chase series reconnected him with his Crescent City roots, since his maternal grandparents’ first date took place at Dooky’s.

“I still cannot believe it’s happening to me, “ Chase said, reflecting on her humble working-class beginnings and the gala and art exhibit being held in her honor. “If you work hard, you can get what you are going after.”

The exhibition “Leah Chase: Paintings by Gustave Blache III” opens to the public on Tuesday. Read the related story “Leah Chase likeness enshrined in the National Portrait Gallery” here.

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