Even before you walk into Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans, the aroma of home cooking is wafting in the parking lot.
But get invited inside Leah Chase’s kitchen, and something more powerful is visible – her Catholic faith in the form of multiple crosses on the wall.
“I keep them up there,” the grand dame of New Orleans’ chefs said. “I had a friend who worked at the museum (New Orleans Museum of Art), and every time he went out of town he would bring me either a rosary or a crucifix. When these legs hurt me, I look at those crucifixes and I say this pain can’t be as much as that pain on the cross.”
At age 89, Chase still cooks her famous Creole recipes eight hours a day at the restaurant, a place she’s worked since she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, a former musician and son of the founders, in 1945.
She said she has been fortunate in life – one of 11 children who grew up in Madisonville – raised by parents with a strong faith, respect for God and belief in education. Her family was “poorer than Job’s turkey,” but her dad had three rules to follow: you prayed, you worked and you did for others. After high school at St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, she waitressed in the Colonial Restaurant, something unheard of for Creoles. Back then, she said, female Creoles generally worked in sewing factories.
“I loved the kitchen and used to go in the kitchen but the chef would tell me, ‘Women can’t do that. They can’t pick up the pots.’” She said she barked back, “I don’t see you picking up anything.”
Start with fresh
Fresh ingredients are key to Chase’s cuisine. Her world-famous Gumbo Z’Herbes is packed with mustard and collard greens, turnips, beet tops, cabbage, spinach and onions.
“We had a lot of fresh vegetables growing up in Madisonville,” she said. “My dad raised onions, so we peeled and smothered onions. Now it’s called caramelized onions but you ate that over grits and that was dinner. “
Madisonville was truly rural when she was a child, and she said Lent dishes used to be easy to prepare “because back in the day we didn’t have any meat anyway.”
Common dishes on her family table: Shrimp Creole; egg stew with tomatoes, onions and hard-boiled eggs; potato stew and even rice soup.
“During Lent (at Dooky’s) the menu doesn’t change too much,” she said. “We serve a lot of seafood here all the time any way.“ She might add codfish cakes or crab fried rice or a Fish Courtbuillon in a light tomato gravy. “That is good,” she said.
She’s as quick to tell you how to solve crime – return to the days when mothers and fathers actually raised their children – as she is to whip up one of her favorite entrees: Shrimp Clemenceau. She calls it a simple dish made with real butter, garlic, white wine, pre-cooked potatoes and green peas, salt, pepper, parsley and paprika for garnish. “I always say if it looks good, it’s going to taste good.“
Chase isn’t apologetic to tell you she uses a lot of butter in her cooking and said she’s not a diabetic or have high cholesterol.
“It’s called moderation,” she said. “You see this dish I’m cooking, I like butter and potatoes, but you could cook it with olive oil. It’s simple ingredients. … I tell people all the time, it’s a good dish, easy to make and it looks good.”
The restaurant, as stated in the preface of her two cookbooks – the Dooky Chase Cookbook and And Still I Cook – has long been a bastion of celebrities, politicians and locals alike. It was neighborhood beacon where whites and black could co-mingle long before integration.
She said the best thing to come out of integration was that people were able to learn. It opened opportunities for black and whites to work together and learn from each other.
“It is a better city than it was years ago,” she said. “Black people wouldn’t have been able to learn about cream sauces because they didn’t make that at home.”
Chase is humble about her celebrity even though her numerous honors include receiving The Times-Picayune’s Loving Cup Award in 1997 and the Ella Brennan Savoir Faire Award for Excellence from the American Culinary Federation. She’s had her own cooking show “Creole Cooking with Leah Chase,” and had an autobiography – “Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This” – was written about her.
At Dooky’s, she has fed the likes of entertainers Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horn and even two presidents – George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“I’ve met so many good people in life,” she said. “I am so lucky. I have met so many people who have uplifted me.”
She’s uplifted many as well, especially cooking and providing her face to causes, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. She is a parishioner at St. Peter Claver.
The city of New Orleans celebrated her 90th year (actually it’s her 89th birthday) on King’s Day – Jan. 6 at Gallier Hall with Mayor Mitch Landrieu presenting her flowers.
And from April 24-Sept. 9, a “behind-the-scenes” look of Chase in the restaurant kitchen in an art exhibit by New Orleans-born Gustave Blache III will be displayed at the New Orleans Museum of Art. One of the paintings was selected to hang in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
“It’s so real. It looks just like me. I told him, ‘You could have made me look like Halle Berry.’”
She said depicting a woman cooking demonstrates that everybody has something they can contribute in life.
“Not everybody can be a doctor or lawyer,” she said, but can develop a talent that is useful. She said those doctors and lawyers have to eat. “I can’t do that so I do what I do. I can cook for him. Look at me. I’m here scrubbing my own pots. … I am grateful because I like what I do. It’s not like working.”