by Ian McNulty
A legacy that extends far beyond food runs through the dining rooms of Dooky Chase Restaurant, a landmark of the civil rights struggle, a trove of African American art and a daily example of the power of community.
As the Chase family prepares to celebrate the 90th birthday of their matriarch, the legendary chef Leah Chase, they are planning a pair of public events to honor her and raise funds for a new foundation to ensure that legacy endures.
“My mother loves to celebrate her birthday,” says Stella Reese, the chef’s daughter and right hand in running Dooky Chase Restaurant. “With the size of our large family, the celebration usually spans at least a week and is full of dinners and parties. The grandchildren actually felt that inviting the community she loves and serves so passionately was the best way to honor her 90 years.”
Events begin Jan. 4 with luncheon at the restaurant, with seatings at 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. and featuring a menu of Chase’s classic Creole dishes. Leah and her husband Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. will speak at the event. Lunch costs $40 per person, and reservations, required by Dec. 28, can be made at the restaurant for by calling 504-821-0600.
The following evening, Jan. 5, the festivities move to the Hyatt Regency for a 90th Birthday Gala, which includes a cocktail reception and four-course meal of dishes inspired by Leah from a slate of yet-to-be-announced chefs.
Individual tickets are $250 and tables are available for $2,500, with a Dec. 28 deadline to purchase. Register online here or mail checks to the Edgar "Dooky" Jr. & Leah Chase Family Foundation, PO Box 791313, New Orleans 70179. Sponsorships are available by contacting Tracie Griffin, 205-283-6005 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proceeds from the weekend will seed the Edgar “Dooky” Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation, which the family says they’re creating “to continue the legacy of the pair’s tireless work to uplift their families and community through their faith, successful management of Dooky Chase Restaurant, active involvement in social justice activities that foster inclusion, and support of the creative and culinary arts.”
Dooky Chase Restaurant got its start in the 1940 as a neighborhood bar, but once Leah took a more active role in the family business it developed into an important restaurant. As the civil rights movement began revving up, it also became a meeting place for community organizers and leaders and a safe haven for people from the white and black communities to convene and plan.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a guest at Chase’s table, and in the decades that followed many other civic and government leaders would come calling at Dooky Chase Restaurant. Chase also emerged as a patron of the arts, encouraging young artists, buying their work and turning her restaurant walls into a veritable gallery of contemporary African American art.