NEW ORLEANS - Top New Orleans chefs will be cooking up some of their finest fare in a salute to one of their own — the city's queen of Creole cuisine, Leah Chase.
Chefs John Besh, John Currence, Susan Spicer and John Folse will be cooking at a Jan. 5 gala celebrating Chase's 90th birthday and the launch of the Edgar "Dooky" Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation. The couple's granddaughter, Tracie Griffin, says the foundation's goal is to promote their work in the culinary arts, music and social reform.
Dooky Chase Restaurant, run by the couple since the mid-1950s, is a civil rights landmark. It's where plans to help The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stage sit-ins and to shelter others trying to further racial equality were made over bowls of gumbo.
"Leah used food as a common thread to bring people together," said Besh, who plans to prepare a creamy crab and cauliflower bisque for the soup course of the gala dinner. "Food was her tool for peace. She's not just a chef. She's this beautiful figure of peace and hope that we can all draw inspiration from."
Chase, who turns 90 on Jan. 6, is a longtime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had one of the few relatively upscale restaurants for blacks before the civil rights movement.
For decades, black and white foodies alike flocked to the restaurant. It flooded, along with Chase's home, when levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and reopened in early 2007 with the help of volunteers.
Folse was among those who helped raise money to get the restaurant running again.
"Leah had spent her whole life giving to others," he said. "She was always about doing what was right for people, and she did that by sharing her kitchen. I don't know of any other cook I respect more than Leah. There was nothing I wouldn't do for her."
In 2010, Chase became a member of the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America, which honours the country's most notable chefs.
The gala is attracting some of the biggest names in the industry. Besh owns eight restaurants in New Orleans; Spicer owns Bayona in the French Quarter and Mondo in the city's Lakeview neighbourhood; and Currence is a New Orleans-born chef with restaurants in Oxford, Miss.
Folse, co-owner of Revolution, a French Quarter Cajun and Creole restaurant, said he'll be making chocolate doberge cake — a traditional New Orleans cake of thin, alternating layers.
"But I'll be making a bowl of chocolate soup just for Leah," he said. "It's her favourite."
Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who owns three New Orleans restaurants and others elsewhere, will not be preparing food but will contribute to a silent auction, according to event organizers.
Marcus Samuellson, the chef at Harlem's Red Rooster, will contribute a dish for the gala but will not be able to attend. A team will be preparing the food in his absence.
Tickets for the gala and four-course dinner start at $250. Participating chefs will introduce the dishes as they are served as part of the program.
On the eve of the gala, a special lunch with Dooky and Leah Chase will be held at the restaurant. Griffin said all funds raised from the two days of events will benefit the foundation.