It isn’t hard to find Leah Chase. Though she’s now in her late 80s, this famous chef and de facto ambassador of the Creole culinary tradition still puts in long hours at her landmark restaurant Dooky Chase (2301 Orleans Ave., 821-0600). Most days, you can find her either greeting guests in her dining room or at work in her kitchen, chopping trinity, tending gumbo pots and generally steering the ship.
Next Sunday, Oct. 23, however, the place to find this living legend of New Orleans cuisine will be the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Chase will be taking part in the museum’s ongoing “Southern Storytellers” series, for which she’s paired up with her longtime friend, the nationally-recognized culinary historian Jessica B. Harris.
It promises to be an intimate audience with two women with a lot to say about what goes into a meal beyond the obvious ingredients.
Harris is the author of nearly a dozen books documenting the cooking and food traditions of the African diaspora. For instance, her 1991 title “Sky Juice and Flying Fish” is a culinary history and guide to cooking across the Caribbean islands, while her 2003 book “Beyond Gumbo” traces the broadest definition of Creole cooking all across the Atlantic rim. Her latest, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from African to America,” explores the complexities and cultural impact of black cooking in America through history and up to today. The New York Times reviewed the book not once but twice this year.
Chase has a number of books to her credit too, including the “Dooky Chase Cookbook” and another cookbook called “And Still I Cook.” Her biggest impact, however, has been under the roof of her Dooky Chase restaurant, though that hasn't been limited to what she puts on the plate.
Chase was born in 1923 and spent her early years with her family in a rural Northshore setting in Madisonville. At age 13 she moved to New Orleans to attend high school and live with relatives in the city. She married Edgar Chase Jr. in 1946 and eventually went to work at the restaurant her husband’s family ran in the Fifth Ward.
As the civil rights movement began revving up, Dooky Chase Restaurant emerged as a meeting place for its organizers and leaders and as a safe haven for people from the white and black communities to gather. 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, including Barak Obama during his 2008 campaign for president.
Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana presented Chase with the Ben Smith Award for her work promoting racial equality. Named for a late civil rights attorney and founder of the ACLU of Louisiana, the award is the local ACLU’s highest honor.
Though Chase began her restaurant career without formal culinary training, her acclaim has brought her honorary degrees from many universities, including a doctorate of culinary arts granted by Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island in 2009. That same year, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum re-named one of its exhibit galleries in her honor as the Leah Chase Louisiana Gallery.
Next week’s Ogden event is presented by the Kohlmeyer Circle, the museum's young patron membership. It takes place around lunchtime, so food will be available to purchase in the museum.
Admission is free to museum members and $10 for others.
Southern Storytellers: Culinary Tales with Jessica Harris and Leah Chase
Oct. 23, noon- 2 p.m.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
925 Camp St., 539-9613