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The Extraordinary Life of Leah Chase

Ian McNulty on New Orleans' queen of Creole cuisine

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  "Creole girls like me were expected to work at the sewing factory, a good job," Chase says, but she took a different route. In the early 1940s, men were being drafted for the expanding American war effort and suddenly black and white women were getting jobs they previously couldn't. Chase says that's how she started waiting tables at the long-since-closed Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter, a job she credits as "one of the best things that could have happened."

  "I saw just how wonderful the restaurant business was, how you could sit down and enjoy a meal and have someone serve you," Chase says. "Oh, I thought, that was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."

  She would try out different jobs during her first years in New Orleans, including stints working for a bookie and even managing a few local boxers. But the allure of restaurants captivated her, and her big break in the business came with her marriage in 1946 to Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, then a trumpet player, whose family had started Dooky Chase Restaurant on Orleans Avenue five years earlier.

  This Dooky Chase Restaurant was at that time a far cry from the elegant destination of upholstered chairs, chandeliers and contemporary art that goes by the name today. Housed in a double shotgun house, it was a tavern serving po-boys and selling lottery tickets, a family business that was first bankrolled on a $600 loan from a local brewery (a common startup practice for bars of the day). It was open practically around the clock, closing as late as 5 a.m. and opening for early lunch a few hours later.

  "My mother-in-law (Emily Chase) was a great cook, but being a black woman of that time she did not have any experience in restaurants like I had seen it from working in the Quarter," Chase says. "So I said, 'You know, we're going to have it here like other people have it.'"

  Her changes came gradually – first by upgrading the menu with more Creole dishes, then by sprucing up the tavern decor. The renovations that would so greatly expand the restaurant, add a brick exterior and create its variously themed dining rooms didn't start until 1984. But long before that, Dooky Chase Restaurant earned its landmark status for providing history-making hospitality.

Dr. Norman Francis, a native of Lafayette, La., remembers that Dooky Chase Restaurant "was already a legend" when he arrived in New Orleans in 1948. "It was the food and the atmosphere. When you heard someone was taking his girlfriend to Dooky Chase, you'd say that was high cotton," he says.

  Francis, who has been president of Xavier University since 1968, was the first black student admitted to Loyola University Law School. He says the welcome the Chase family provided at their restaurant was a balm when many other doors were barred.

  "There was the pain of not being able to walk through the front door of a restaurant or a hotel, which was of course insulting to the human persona," he says. "But Leah kept the bright light on for all of us. When you couldn't go to some places, you could always go to Dooky Chase and the food would be better there anyway."

  For the same reason, the restaurant became the go-to spot for black notables in the arts, sports and politics whenever they came through segregated New Orleans. Ray Charles even added a reference to eating at Dooky Chase in his 1961 single "Early in the Morning."

Princess Tiana, lead character of the animanted Disney movie The Princess and the Frog, was modeled on Leah Chase. - PHOTO © DISNEY ENTERPRISES
  • Photo © Disney Enterprises
  • Princess Tiana, lead character of the animanted Disney movie The Princess and the Frog, was modeled on Leah Chase.

  The restaurant also soon became a hotbed for civil rights activists, both black and white, who crammed into a small second-floor dining room in a camelback portion of the building for planning sessions, their mixed-race meals there breaking segregation laws in the process. Chase herself is low-key about the history that transpired under her roof and over her food.

  "People would just come," she says. "I didn't feel like I was doing anything special. It was just an easy place to meet."

  But for others who participated in some of these gatherings, the haven she provided and the contributions she made were vital.

  "If you're looking for a place that advanced integration and racial understanding, nothing stands out for me more than that restaurant and that lady," says Rudy Lombard, a civil rights activist who staged one of the city's first sit-ins at a Canal Street lunch counter. "It was the only place where people knew blacks and whites could get together in a civil rights context without being hassled. (The police) knew what was going on; they were following us, but nothing ever happened to us there."

  Still, the Chase family did receive threatening notes in those days, and once someone hurled a pipe bomb at the restaurant, which damaged the building but drew no blood. Moon Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978, says that even after segregation laws were overturned and tensions began to cool, the restaurant continued to serve the role of neutral ground.

  "It took a long time for the law to be followed and for customs to change, but people found it welcoming to eat together at Dooky Chase," Landrieu says. "If you reversed the situation, and think about black people going to a white restaurant at that time — well, it was one thing then to say you have the right and it was another to say you felt comfortable. But at Leah's place, you wanted to be there because of the food, the hospitality and just her personality."

The Leah Chase personality — the determination to do what she feels is right and the work ethic to make it happen — has remained the constant of Dooky Chase Restaurant, guiding how it developed over the decades and how it operates today.

  She insisted the restaurant expand and upgrade in the 1980s, even as the housing project across the street and the surrounding neighborhood deteriorated. Throughout that time, Chase cultivated what has become a renowned collection of African-American art inside her dining rooms, driven mainly by the desire to encourage others to succeed.

  "I didn't know anything about collecting art as an investment," Chase says. "Some of (the artists), they'd just send me pieces, sometimes we'd swap them for gumbo. Artists are always hungry and I fed them when they needed it and they took care of me."

  Though the restaurant was flooded badly after the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, one of Chase's grandsons was able to extract the art collection, which was reinstalled in time for the restaurant's reopening in 2007. During the interim, Chase and her husband lived in a FEMA trailer beside the restaurant. They now live in a renovated shotgun house just next door.

  "I walk out my door every day and into the restaurant," she says.

  Her family isn't surprised at her work ethic. That doesn't mean they don't worry.

  "At first I had a guilt complex. We all did," says her son, Edgar Chase III, a retired dean of business at Dillard University. "I felt like, 'Why can't we just pay someone to run the kitchen?' But then you realize even if you did, it wouldn't stop my mother from going in every day."

  The restaurant has kept limited hours since reopening, serving lunch Tuesdays through Friday and dinner on Friday nights only. Edgar Chase III acknowledges this schedule is a compromise between family members who worry Leah is working too hard and the matriarch's determination to be at her post.

Leah Chase chops vegetables for the entrees that keep customers coming back to her Dooky Chase restaurant. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Leah Chase chops vegetables for the entrees that keep customers coming back to her Dooky Chase restaurant.

  "I always knew from being a little boy that my mother could outwork anybody," Edgar Chase III says. "The stamina is just incredible. She feels unloved, unneeded, unwanted, un-something if she's not doing anything, and she truly loves to serve people. I think she gets the artistic satisfaction from it that someone else might get from a book or a painting."

  Emily Chase Haydel, the first-born of Leah's four children, was for many years her mother's right hand in the restaurant and her heir apparent to take over the kitchen. But she died during childbirth in 1990 at age 42. Leah's second-born, Stella Reese Chase, a former teacher, now plays a key role in the restaurant's management, and Leah's grandson, Edgar Chase IV, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, is being groomed to one day run the family business. He now works for the regional utility Entergy Corp. as he and his wife begin their family, and he helps his grandmother on weekends and with special events.

  Leah Chase is at her restaurant five days a week, starting as early as 7 a.m., talking with suppliers, prepping food and working her dining room at peak lunch hours. She recognizes her family's concerns for her, but she does little to mollify them.

  "People say, 'Why do you go to work every day?' I say, 'Well, what else do you want me to do?' That's all I know how to do is cook," she says. "So as long as I can do it, I do it."

  She still plans for the future. The famous second-floor room where so many important meetings took place is being used as office space now, but she hopes her grandson will reopen it as a dining room someday. More immediately, she's eager to open a takeout window to serve the neighbors around Dooky Chase Restaurant.

  "My mother's big concern is that we always be a part of the community," says Edgar Chase III. "And so even if someone can't afford a meal in the dining room, maybe they can come by for a sandwich or bring home supper to their family."

  Blache, the artist whose paintings of Leah Chase are on exhibit at NOMA, has seen how the Dooky Chase experience can connect a community. His own grandparents had their first date in the restaurant — a very common thread among African-American couples of a certain generation. Blache dined there with his parents frequently as he grew up, and when he visits now he sees plenty of his peers at the tables.

  "So when younger people come in and make it part of their tradition now, Mrs. Chase makes her rounds in the dining room and can tell them all about their families and the history they share through the restaurant," Blache says.

  Making those rounds might take Chase an hour or more these days. Her pace is slower, that's one reason. But also, after all these years, there's just so much more to talk about.

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