It would be a stretch to say that a movie about a woman turning into a frog is based on a true story. But even fairy tales can find inspiration from truth, and if you want to meet the real-life woman behind The Princess and the Frog 's Tiana, look no further than Leah Chase. Born in 1923, Chase is the kitchen wizard behind New Orleans' staple restaurant Dooky Chase. "My first job in New Orleans was working as a waitress at a restaurant. That was the 1940s, when it was almost unheard of for a young black girl, a so-called Creole of Color, to go and work in the French Quarter. That was a no-no," she says. "But I loved it. You see, it was segregation, and I had never seen the inside of a restaurant in my life. ... I loved waiting on people. I loved seeing people eat. And if you like that, you're going to go further."
In 1944, Chase met her husband, Dooky, whose parents ran a small sandwich shop. "I just made it grow. Did what I like to do," she says. "Stumbled a lot, but that's what life's all about. You just stumble and keep going."
When Disney creators were looking for a story to inspire their new animated film about an African-American princess in New Orleans, it was easy for them to find Chase. "When you do a lot of work in your community, you become known, so somebody probably referred [Disney] to me, and I'm so happy about that," she says. "Now everybody wants to be Tiana. I think it's fantastic. When I came up, being a cook was nothing. It's just lately that we have chefs coming into their own. Back then, people would look at you, especially if you were a black woman, and say: 'Oh, you just a cook. That's it.' But now, being a chef is It."
Though she's thrilled at the outcome, Chase didn't always know what was in store. When the folks from Disney first showed up, she says she had no idea of their intentions. "I talked to them for hours and didn't know what I was talking to them for," she says. "I was talking about my life. ... But that's another great thing about corporations like Disney: They know what it takes to bring people together, and that's what life is all about. They had a Cinderella, they had a Snow White, they had all types of little white princesses, so I guess the makers thought that it's about time we show a black princess. And that is the cutest thing, and they have done it in such a beautiful way."
Though Tiana may have been long past due, Chase says she doesn't dwell in the past. "It's good to see people grow, to come together. You don't worry about what went down back down the years. It's progress. We know what we have to do, and we know that life is about uplifting people, and if you make people feel worthy, they'll perform better. So this movie can inspire many little girls," Chase says.
As for the critics who say the movie depicts its characters stereotypically? Chase brushes that off too. "In life I've learned one thing: You're going to have people who find fault with anything. Now people may think, 'Oh, you showed us this way, like we're country, like we're Cajun.' What's wrong with that? That's cute, I thought. If you can't laugh at yourself in life, you're missing the boat."
So what's next for someone who's already achieved the animated equivalent of having her face on the Wheaties box? "I'm working on another cookbook if I ever get it off the line," she says. "I better hurry up because at 87 years you don't have hundreds of years in front of you." Chase already has three cookbooks, The Dooky Chase Cookbook, And I Still Cook and Down Home Healthy: Family Recipes of Black American Chefs. On top of that, she's contributed to Disney's The Princess and the Frog: Tiana's Cookbook. Her latest project is of an even more personal nature, Chase says. "I would like to tell people about their dash," she says. "When you go to the cemetery you see the date of a person's birth, dash and the date of their death. It's that dash that you think about: What did they do where that dash is? Did they make a difference in anybody's life? Did they help anybody? How did they spend those years? And I think that's important. So that's my next cookbook, cooking through my dash." We have a feeling it's going to be a pretty hearty volume.