Queen of creole: New Orleans chef Leah Chase

At an age when most people are retired, Leah Chase works to sustain a rich dining tradition in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS: Leah Chase, proprietress of Dooky Chase, whips up Clemenceau ( shrimp, peas and potatoes sauted in butter) for lunch at Dooky Chase on Tuesday, October 31, 2000. (LAURA NOEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)



NEW ORLEANS: Leah Chase, proprietress of Dooky Chase, whips up Clemenceau ( shrimp, peas and potatoes sauted in butter) for lunch at Dooky Chase on Tuesday, October 31, 2000. (LAURA NOEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Chef Leah Chase, a New Orleans legend often referred to as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, has died at age 96, her family announced late Saturday, June 1, 2019. This profile by food writer and journalist Jim Auchmutey, was originally published by the AJC in 2000.

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One of the most famous restaurants in a city full of them occupies a block of converted shotgun houses in a poor neighborhood where tourists rarely tread. Dooky Chase's, the venerable black creole establishment with the funny name, became famous because of the renowned people who have dined there. It has served red beans and rice to Louis Armstrong, gumbo to Thurgood Marshall, fried chicken to Lena Horne, trout to Jesse Jackson, stuffed crabs to Sarah Vaughan. Ray Charles, who used to drop by after hours, liked the place so much that he wrote it into one of his songs, "Early in the Morning":

I went to Dooky Chase to get something to eat.

The waitress looked at me and said, "Ray, you sure look beat."

But there's another reason Dooky's is famous today, and that's the woman who fixed most of the food for those luminaries. Leah Chase, almost 78, has run the restaurant since the '50s and has become, by dint of her spicy personality and many civic endeavors, one of the most beloved women in New Orleans.

Last winter, as Christmas twinkled to life in the Crescent City, she opened her newspaper one morning and found an unwelcome season's greeting. The dining critic for The Times-Picayune had trashed her restaurant. She said it was resting on its laurels. Had slipshod service. Was dishing up some thin and fishy-tasting crawfish etouffee.

NEW ORLEANS: Leah Chase, proprietress of Dooky Chase, poses with some of her African art collection, at her New Orleans restaurant on Tuesday, October 31, 2000. (LAURA NOEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)


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A few years before, the paper had given Dooky's four red beans on a scale of 1 to 5, saying that the food was so good "you want to run in the kitchen and hug the cook." Now the cook needed that hug, because the new rating was cold indeed: one measly bean.

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This was no small matter in New Orleans, where dining is taken seriously and certain restaurants have come to resemble sacred cows. Dooky Chase resting on its laurels? You might as well say Aaron Neville is losing his falsetto or Paul Prudhomme is allergic to chili powder.

"You can pick on anyone you want to in this city, but don't pick on Leah," says Ella Brennan, owner of Commander's Palace, another of the revered dining institutions in New Orleans. She was so concerned over the review that she sent a bouquet of flowers and rushed over to Dooky's. She was waiting in the kitchen with sympathy and encouragement when Chase arrived that morning.

The review stung --- Chase couldn't deny that. But the most hurtful part, as much as she hated to face it, was that the critic had a point.

Home base  

Running a restaurant isn't easy, especially the way Chase does it. She puts in 12- to 14-hour days cooking, cleaning, fussing with the staff, dealing with the public.

"This is my home," she says of the cluttered kitchen at Dooky's. She means it literally. She usually sleeps in an apartment in back of the restaurant and walks down the hall to start work by 8 or 9. The kitchen seems homey, with a TV blaring and a stack of mail on the table and a constellation of family portraits taped to the wooden cabinets beside a funeral home calendar. The lady of the house, though short and rather squat, looks impressively leonine, with a mane of white hair framing her high cheekbones and piano-key smile.

If there's anything she loves as much as working, it's talking. She is to talking what jambalaya is to rice.

"We're the fattest people in the country here in New Orleans, but we're happy," Chase begins, unwrapping a block of unsalted butter and feeding it into a big black pot. "I hate margarine. We always had butter on the farm."

She points a knife toward her visitor. "Butter is our friend."

The farm was in Madisonville, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Leah grew up there during the Depression, one of 11 children in a family that was so poor she wore dresses made from flour sacks. They still managed to eat reasonably well. Not that she gets nostalgic about those days. Years later at Dooky's she refused to serve a national officer of the NAACP because he was wearing a denim suit. She has a dress code and loathes denim. "It reminds me of fieldwork," she says.

Leah left the farm to attend a Catholic high school in New Orleans. She took jobs waitressing at a couple of cafes in the French Quarter --- the first time she'd ever been inside a restaurant. She loved it. So naturally, when she married into a restaurant family of sorts, she brought a dowry of ideas.

The Chases were one of the best-known black families in New Orleans. Edgar "Dooky" Chase sold lottery tickets door-to-door and knew practically everybody. His wife, Emily, ran a sandwich shop out of a shotgun house on Orleans Avenue. Their son, Edgar "Dooky" Jr. (he got stuck with his daddy's childhood nickname), played trumpet and fronted his own dance band. That's how he met Leah, at a dance.

For the first few years of their marriage, she traveled with him on gigs around the Southeast. That got old. Then she stayed home and raised their four children. By the early '50s, she was restless and started helping her mother-in-law in the short-order restaurant.

"I wanted to shake things up, try some new dishes like lobster thermidor," Chase remembers. "But folks around here didn't want that. They thought shrimp cocktail was something you drank. How were they supposed to know that stuff? They'd never been around real restaurants."

The two women inevitably clashed. Daughter-in-law envisioned an upscale place with French provincial chairs and sophisticated creole cooking. Mama liked things the way they were, even that black wallpaper with the pink elephants.

"She didn't want to spend any money," Chase says. "She'd carry $1,000 cash around in her bosom. She liked to look at her money. I don't. If you were supposed to look at your money all the time, they wouldn't have put all those ugly men on it. They'd have put Clark Gable or Johnny Mathis on it."

Guess who won the tug of war?

Chase is touring her guest through the restaurant when she comes to the banquet room, a tasteful retreat furnished with antiques and reproductions, many of them French provincial. There's one piece that looks out of place, a wide-bottomed chair covered in leopard skin.

"That was my mother-in-law's," Chase says, with a little smile. "I call it the queen chair."

Under the new queen, Dooky's became a gathering place for black New Orleans, like Paschal's used to be in Atlanta. The Chases hosted entertainers, politicians, civil rights workers, prom couples, Little Leaguers at their banquets.

The restaurant became a point of pride for the community, especially after it was expanded during the '80s by joining three narrow shotgun houses behind a new facade. The investment was a gamble because the neighborhood, on the edge of downtown New Orleans, had visibly declined. The biggest landmark, directly across the street from Dooky's, is the Lafitte housing project. Some taxi drivers refused to take fares into the area.

"People kept telling me we ought to leave," Chase says. "But you can't run away from yourself."

Besides, the neighborhood respects Dooky's. In six decades of business, the restaurant has never been broken into --- not that Chase can remember. The worst trouble happened a couple of years ago when a jealous woman from the suburbs stabbed her man as he was waiting for a takeout order. He staggered out of the doorway, collapsed on the sidewalk and died.

"And I had to clean up that mess," Chase says, shaking her head.

Today the restaurant totally reflects her sensibilities. She has filled the expanded dining rooms with a stunning collection of African-American art --- woodcuts by Elizabeth Catlett, paintings by Jacob Lawrence and Jonathan Green, stained-glass panels depicting local street life. She knows many of the artists and has championed them as a board member of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The menu provides another exhibition of heritage. Chase cooks creole, a term that means different things to different people. It was originally used to refer to the French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana, but it came to have a broader sense, referring to mixed-race Louisianians --- particularly light-skinned blacks, or Creoles de couleur: people like Chase, whose Choctaw Indian grandmother no doubt contributed to her cinnamon complexion.

On the plate, black creole means many of the same subtle, Frenchified dishes you'd find at the white creole establishments in the Quarter: grillades, trout amandine, shrimp Clemenceau. But Chase throws in some soul: gumbo, red beans and rice, fried chicken.

"It's fusion cooking," she explains. "We've been fusing around here a long time."

What steams her is when someone confuses her style of cooking with Cajun, the hearty fare that started in the bayous and prairies of Acadian Louisiana. Ever since Paul Prudhomme popularized blackened redfish, customers have occasionally requested blackened dishes at Dooky's.

"I don't blacken," she tells them. "The only thing black in my kitchen is me."

‘A’ for effort  

When the bad review came out, people all over New Orleans felt terrible for Chase and wrote letters of protest to the newspaper. At the same time, knowledgeable diners whispered that maybe Dooky's had slipped a bit. "The restaurant is a lot less consistent than it used to be," says Gene Bourg, the food critic who gave it a much higher rating when he worked for the paper a decade ago.

Good review or not, it isn't for lack of effort. Most days you can still find Chase in the kitchen with her niece, Cleo Robinson, overseeing the lunch buffet or the a la carte dinner or making something for one of the charity functions she's always catering. Today she's doing Leah's Slaw for a public-TV fund raiser. A grandson --- one of several kin working in the restaurant --- is prepping the cabbage. Chase doesn't like the way he's doing it.

"Don't shred it," she instructs him in a brassy tone. "Chop it!"

She lets out a sigh. "I've got to be here to make sure it's done right. I lost all my good help."

Her friends are concerned that Chase works too hard and expends too much energy on things she shouldn't have to bother with. Bourg remembers seeing her limping during one of his visits to the restaurant; she said she'd hurt her knee showing someone how to scrub the floor.

"She ought not be back there cooking every night. She ought to be out front greeting her guests," says Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, an old friend of the Chases. "She needs to find a young chef with a sense of history who'd like to learn from her."

Chase had a protege once. Her daughter Emily, who reminded people of Leah, was her partner and heir apparent at the restaurant until she died during pregnancy 10 years ago. That knocked the wind out of her mother. The other three offspring --- a singer, a professor, a public school administrator --- are happy in their jobs, far from the heat of a kitchen.

And her husband of 54 years? Now, there's a tricky subject.

"Dooky hates this business," Chase declares. "The restaurant is not where I want it to be; I want it to be one of the finest in the city. But you have to hire people to make that happen, and my husband doesn't want to do that."

Theirs is a complicated partnership. In effect, they run parallel restaurants under the same roof. Leah handles the formal dining rooms while Dooky runs the takeout window, selling po' boys and red beans like his mother used to do. He also keeps the books and, being tight with money, initially opposed almost every project his wife dreamed up, from expanding the restaurant to acquiring art to divulging some of her recipes in a cookbook.

"We seldom come together on anything," Dooky admits. "Seems like she's on one street and I'm on another."

Take the matter of help. Sure, he'd like to hire some good people. But that takes money, and there isn't as much of it these days because business isn't what it used to be.

"Our name recognition is great, but the revenue isn't there," Dooky says. And even if it were, he doubts his wife would really let go of all the detail work. "She's not too good about delegating."

Jessica Har ris wonders about that, too. The noted culinary historian from New York has come to know the Chases well since she took up part-time residence in New Orleans. The two women have a lovingly feisty relationship. She calls her Aunt Leah; Chase calls her "Dr. Smart Mouth."

To Harris, Chase is one-of-a-kind, a down-home grande dame who sprinkles centuries of tradition into every pot of gumbo.

"I don't know," she says, "that Leah Chase has a culinary heir."