Leah Chase’s chef jacket peeked my interest because food has a fascinating way of shaping culture and history (some historians go so far as saying coffee helped win the Civil War). Moreover, this is a jacket worn by a female black chef whom I had not heard of. Who was this woman that obviously overcame barriers to achieve this title and jacket? I didn’t have to go far to learn how this collection piece earned its place among the 37,000 elite objects.
On one level this jacket tells the story of a strong woman, one of 14 children born in Madisonville, Louisiana. A woman who grew up amidst the oppression and segregation in the south (About the Chef, para. 2). Her resume, which includes managing amateur boxers and marking a race horse board, speaks of a feisty woman who does not necessarily conform to social norms (About the Chef, para. 2). Once Leah Chase marries musician Edgar Dooky Chase, Jr., she put her founts of energy into the family’s restaurant Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans.
In addition to the story of Leah Chase, this jacket speaks of cultural preservation. In taking over the restaurant, Leah Chase created what one might go so far as call a museum. She preserves creole food and culture through the dishes that she prepares, inspired by her Louisiana childhood (About the Chef, para. 3). She also began collecting African American art, which still adorns the restaurant walls today. In a time before many African American museums were created, this restaurant celebrated and preserved African American culture.
Lastly, Dooky Chase’s restaurant becomes one of the primary meeting places for the Civil Rights movement, becoming a main character in the journey to equal rights. Notably, this restaurant was so loved by the public, police could not shut it down (About the Chef, para. 4). Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders came here to meet and plan next steps in resistance. It is no coincidence they chose to meet in a place that could nourish body and soul.
At 93 years old, Leah Chase still works at Dooky’s Chase’s. I would love to sit down with Leah Chase and hear more about her childhood, memories of the Civil Rights movement and what she thinks of the world today. Quite possibly the stories this jacket represents are not finished yet. Objects like this illustrate the intersectionality between individuals, culture and history. Just one object communicates multiple intersecting stories, which is why I look forward to learning more about this and other objects of convergence.
About the Chef. (2013). Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. Retrieved from http://www.dookychaserestaurant.com/chef
Chef Jacket Worn by Leah Chase. (2012). 2014.218.1, NMAAHC (1400 Constitution Ave NW), National Mall Location, Culture/Fourth Floor, 4 050. Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.