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CREOLE QUEEN: LEAH CHASE: Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South

Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South

Photography by NATHAN KIRKMAN


Friday, August 03, 2007

By Jennifer Olvera

The following piece is from Issue 31: Ode to the South. This issue is available for purchase on this site


Creole Queen: Leah Chase

Hammers pound tirelessly in the background as Leah Chase, the chef-owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant — a venerable landmark in New Orleans — recalls the events of Hurricane Katrina.

“If it hit at full strength, we knew there wouldn’t be enough body bags for us,” she says.

Then the levees broke.

“Now, everything is gone,” she says. “All my people are gone.”

Although the 84-year-old Louisiana native has overcome many things in her day, this, she says, was like nothing she’d ever seen. There were too many people in a city full of people who couldn’t fend for themselves. “There was no one to direct them. No one to help them,” she says. “There were people who had no choice but to stay and hope for the best. So many people lost their lives — so many people — and the water kept coming.”Born in Madisonville, a town not far from the FEMA trailer she lives in today, Chase returned to temporary digs across the street from the restaurant shortly after evacuating. There, the desolation surrounds her — she and her family are about the only folks within a six-block radius.

“After the levees broke, the whole city was under water,” Chase says. “There was a terrible odor from all the bad water. Once the water receded, it was time to clean up.” From that point on, she set about rebuilding the dining institution so she could provide people with the sustenance they needed to get back on track. After taking in nearly six feet of water, the take-out side of the restaurant collapsed. The walls of the restaurant had to be ripped out, the mold removed, the plumbing and electrical wiring redone.

There were times when, despite her lifelong Catholic faith, Chase feared the road ahead. “I told my friend, who is a priest, that I was afraid to die,” she says, her voice cracking. “I told him I was afraid I wasn’t doing everything right. He said, ‘You’re doing everything right. Don’t you know Jesus liked to eat?’ After that, I started to pay attention. He did like to eat. It seemed like before he did anything, he sat down for supper.”

Joining loved ones for a meal is not just a means to an end but a labor of love for Chase — not to mention an opportunity to unite those with different backgrounds and beliefs. Preparing a meal for others is a way for her to nurture them, cultivate new friendships and communicate who she is and what motivates her. Simply put, the experience of preparing food, eating what she’s fashioned and watching others enjoy her cuisine is restorative.

“There are so many people in the African-American community to uplift, and this is how I do it,” Chase says. “Since Katrina, the job got bigger and bigger. Sometimes it’s so big it frightens me. I need to get back to feeding people. I need to get back over my stove and cook. It’s a cure-all for all kinds of problems. I can get my worries out over the stove.”

Chase’s life has been full of struggles, but she’s never let hardship get her down. One of 11 surviving children — two siblings died accidental deaths, another was stillborn — Chase was not the one to man the kitchen in her home.

“I did housework — made beds and did the ironing,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I came to work in a restaurant that I learned to like food preparation. It all worked out.”Her first gig in the industry was at Colonial Restaurant on Chartres Street. In 1945, she met and married Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, a musician whose parents owned Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, then a sandwich shop, which opened in 1941. She raised her children and went on to work at the family eatery part time before reshaping both its menu and the nation’s concept of Creole cuisine.

When Duke Ellington came to New Orleans, it was the only restaurant — literally — where he could indulge in a meal. The hallowed walls have also welcomed icons like Nat King Cole, a big fan of her apple pie, Count Basie and the Jackson 5.

Chase is nothing if not humble, yet she knows the role the restaurant played over the years is significant. Chase has seen segregation dissipate. During and since that time, the restaurant earned its reputation as the local ground-zero for the civil rights movement. “We fed people before they went picketing,” she says. “If they went to jail, we fed them when they got out. It was the kind of place where people in the black community came for a couple of beers and wanted a bite to eat. When people started moving up, it was time for a change.”

While developing the restaurant’s menu involved trial and error, Chase found going back to her roots yielded the best results. “I grew up in the country, and we ate plain food, food that has come to be elite,” she says. “Before, we’d shoot quail and braise it with butter. Now quail is considered haute cuisine.”

Chase admits she’s not a “hash kind of person,” but she says it’s food at once comforting and familiar. “When you sit at my tables, you’re a king or a queen,” she says. “I serve you properly, elegantly. I put who I am in that pot so that when you sit in my chairs you know me.”

The dishes that her patrons over the years most favored — the ones that brought them back time and time again — were regional tastes like shrimp jambalaya, gumbo, stuffed shrimp, oyster dressing and chicken Creole.

The revamped restaurant will reopen in late spring. It will feature a menu similar to the one her patrons enjoyed over the years with bi-weekly specials augmenting the selections. As for the atmosphere, it’s pure Leah. The walls have been spruced up with new paint hues, from red to green and gold, and there’s a newfangled mahogany bar that begs to be sidled up to for a sip or two. The restaurant’s original artwork was salvaged by Chase’s grandson, so diners can once again take in the vibrant and esteemed portrait collection.

“Most of the chairs were washed away by the water, so we’ll have new ones in the big dining room,” Chase says. “Other than that, it’s pretty much the same space, nothing new. I want people to get back to dining like they’re supposed to,” Chase says. “You can work out a lot of things over food.”

And it seems there is still plenty to work out.



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