Leah Chase in “Lemonade”

Even before Leah Chase took over at Dooky’s Chase, the New Orleans restaurant founded by her father-in-law in 1941, it was already a bustling, casual eatery where people came to talk about the serious issues of the day. It was Leah, however, who made Creole food its specialty and decorated the walls with art by Black artists. Chase turned Dooky’s into a sit-down restaurant where a members of the community—black and white—could come to talk about race and the fight for civil rights. That was a huge deal in Jim Crow’s America. She fed among many others, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and Barack Obama. Chase earned the acclaim and respect in a white, male dominated food industry that she enjoyed all the way until her death at beginning of this month at the age of 96.

Chase and her Creole cooking became staples in New Orleans and across the country and in recent years, was even entering the realm of popular culture. She was the inspiration for the first Black Disney Princess—Tiana, the New Orleans girl who dreamed of opening her own restaurant and had a cameo in Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” seated regally among other notable Black women like the mothers of Mike Brown and Erik Garner.

We asked local Krystal Mack, who visited with Chase, to discuss Chase’s significance and the legacy she left behind. Mack, who formerly owned BLK//SUGAR at R. House and before that ran Karma Pop/PieCycle, is a wizard with food offering unique frozen treats—and as our coverage yesterday of the Lexington Market Town Hall showed, is unafraid to speak out about issues of inequity and food justice. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

Baltimore Beat: You went on a New Orleans trip a while back that included a visit with Leah Chase. How did that come about? What did you do? What did you learn? 

Krystal Mack: I attended the Radical Exchange summit Resistance Served in New Orleans this February. Resistance Served was like no other food or hospitality conference I’ve ever attended. There was a tour to Whitney Plantation, a dinner with Michael Twitty and panel discussions that really dived into issues black food professionals face. One of the dinners was at Dooky Chase and it was a collaboration between Leah Chase and Carla Hall. Shrimp and grits, red snapper, biscuits. We had so much food! Miss Chase spoke before the meal and it was amazing to experience the energy of dining at Dooky Chase with Carla Hall and Leah Chase.

BB: How have chefs like Chase influenced the kind of work that you do? 

KM: Chefs like Miss Chase are so special because they really were about community. We hear a lot of people talking about building community but it is often times just for praise or recognition or the power that comes from being seen as a space provider and savior. Chef Chase was a true community builder and an educator. She taught me that the type of work that she did, real community organizing, is not for the faint of heart but that Black women do have it within us if we want to commit to doing the work. She instilled excellence within me and is actually the reason why I am considering going to culinary school. She believed that if you loved to cook you owe it to yourself to better your skills and hone your craft. 

BB: How did you feel when you learned that Chase had passed away? 

KM: I really felt like the food community, especially the black food community, lost a source of love, comfort, and history. Her words will live on in her writings and teachings. I hope her lessons will not only live on in those who learned them but also be put into action in each of our lives. I was speechless when I saw she had passed but I also felt honored to have had a meal at Dooky Chase this February in her presence. I had met her once in 2017 at a book signing and discussion at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and honestly thought that was the one time I would meet her. Being around legendary black women who are elders in food is a rarity. To have the opportunity to do so twice felt surreal. It was truly an honor to get some of that light.

BB: To me, it feels like Black women chefs are getting more shine than they have in the past. I see people like you and Chef Cat here in Baltimore and all over the country I see Black woman chefs convening and talking about the work they do. Is this something you have experienced? If so, what do you think is the cause. If not, what’s the work that needs to be done?

KM: The convening is something that I have seen but not had a lot of first hand experience with in Baltimore if I’m being honest. I’ve connected with other black women in food and hospitality across the country and grown really special relationships with women like Gabrielle Carter of Revival Taste Collective and Ashtin Berry of Radical Exchange. But at home I struggle with building community. I’ve always felt somewhat like an outsider in both the white food community and Black food community here. Even when I created things for my community I don’t believe they are received well. It’s taught me to not just create things that I would want for my city and others but to continuously focus on the things that I truly want to create for myself. In fact that realization of not having food community or more of a connection to the work is what gave me the bravery to pivot into art. 

In my experience the arts community in Baltimore has been more welcoming than the food community. The closest I’ve gotten to having a sense of genuine food community in Baltimore is when I worked at Real Food Farm and met women like Myesha Taylor and Aleya Fraiser. My local food family has grown more with connections to Chefs like Amanda Mack (no relation) but it is still a very small one for me. I think the food disconnect is mostly because I don’t identify as a chef. I’m not rocking a jacket or working in a restaurant any longer so most people don’t know how to process exactly what it is that I do.  

This is something I find interesting because there are literally white women in Baltimore on the same path as me and it is accepted. They are allowed to be mediocre and flourish. They are not required to prove their worth. However as a Black woman, there is already a bias, conscious or unconscious, tied to the work I create. Proof of this can been seen in the segregated food and arts scenes here in Baltimore. Blackness is not a monolith and so I believe that there needs to to be more of an understanding, by all people, of the intersectionality of Blackness as it pertains to food and the arts. And also an acceptance of pride in being cooks as well as chefs. There are a ton of people calling themselves chefs when they are just really strong home cooks. A chef has knife skills, the ability to manage a team, mentor, cost ingredients, teach and lead a team of professionals. They consistently execute visually flawless work. 

I have never liked being called a chef. If you can’t do all of those things I just mentioned consistently well, then you are not a chef and that is okay. It bothers me that there has been such shame in identifying as “just” a cook because so many black cooks have laid the foundation for American cuisine as it stands today. Enslaved cooks are a perfect example of this. To me it is almost disrespectful to the culture to not want to self-identify as a cook. Chef is the default role. But when you look at the history of kitchen hierarchy it is rooted in Eurocentric views of power which has always been troublesome to me because it leads back to white standards and whiteness as the default. And if we’ve learned anything at this point it’s that white standards do not benefit Black, brown, and yellow people. If anything, they divide each respective community and pit people of color from each other. I think that there should be praise of all roles: Food Artists, Home Cooks, and Line Cooks. We should aspire to take up space in all roles of the industry, not just as the chef. However, if it is the role of chef that we are aiming for, we need to come correct with no half-stepping from recipe development and plating to focus and creativity. It’s more than just a title, it’s a responsibility.

BB: What are you currently working on?

KM: Currently, I am mostly working on programming that will celebrate the national legacy of Black women in food at a local museum. I’ve been working on this since last June and I’m really excited for its premiere in the fall. I can’t give all of the details just yet but I’m looking forward to honoring Baltimore’s history of Black women in food while also celebrating our present state and future. 

I just announced my food zine project “PalatePALETTE.” “PalatePALETTE” is a zine project that examines our varied relationships to Baltimore foodways at the intersection of art and design.  I’m curious about both the history behind and future of Baltimore foodways and this project is just my way of exploring that curiosity. The first issue is on the chicken box and I’m currently accepting submissions on the topic. Submissions can be emailed to AbsenceOf.Studio@gmail.com. 

This August, I will be heading to Marble House Project in Dorset, Vermont for a Culinary Artist residency. My work during that time will focus on healing from all of the loss that I have experienced in the past five years. This work will be some of my most vulnerable and honest work to date. I’m really excited but also really nervous to execute it. If anyone would like to support me, I have created an Amazon wishlist of items I will be in need of during the residency.

Lisa Snowden is Editor-in-Chief and cofounder of Baltimore Beat. Previously, she was an editor at Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Sun, and The Real News Network. Her work has also appeared in Essence,...