NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Saturday in Washington, D.C., New Orleans was there, too. Artifacts from the city's painful past as a hub in the slave trade, and even a door with an X painted on it from Katrina is displayed. But many of New Orleans' brightest lights are also honored. People who made a difference - like culinary legend Leah Chase.
"They've got to be creamy, " she said watching over a big pot of red beans in her New Orleans kitchen. "See how creamy they are?"
She stirs the beans, and stirs the pot of history at the same time. Her life has become part of an emotional exhibit more than 1,000 miles away.
"From the strawberry patch to the Smithsonian. That's a far cry," she said. I can't believe it!"
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture stands out on the Washington mall. Its lacy facade looks like an African headdress, inspired by the ironwork of slaves in New Orleans and Charleston.
"You get to remember these people who have been left out of history," said museum director Lonnie Bunch. "Their stories matter. This is framed in a way that says this is everybody's story."
Four hundred years of the African American experience are on display. Artifacts like a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, slave cabins, slave rebellion leader Nat Turner's bible and Chuck Berry's candy red Cadillac. But on the fourth floor is something people in New Orleanians will recognize: a glass case holds the chef's jacket of the grand dame of New Orleans cuisine. Leah Chase says if she could talk to each visitor who sees it she'd say: "Look at this. Just look at it. Look at this jacket. It's a jacket I wore to work. I worked in this jacket. It was work, it was just me. I wasn't thinking about the dollars, only what I could do to better this restaurant, and make it better for my own people. That's all I ever wanted."
She's still the boss in her kitchen at Dooky Chase and makes most of the lunch dishes.
"Today we got pasta bolgnese, we have corn mach choux," she said.
In the exhibit, a painting of Chase hangs by her jacket, done by New York-based artist Gustave Blache, who was raised in New Orleans.
"I fed A.P Randolph, I fed Lester Granger, I fed Thurgood Marshall," Chase said ticking off an endless list of luminaries.
The painting and the jacket are in the same museum as so many legends she fed.
"I love to serve people," Chase said.
"Clear the doorway for me," Chase she told the kitchen staff as she made her way out of the kitchen with a walker that helps her navigate on legs she says have served her for 93 years.
The treasure looks forward to the future and refuses to slow down.