Leah Chase is experiencing a renaissance.
That’s not the usual thing for a 94-year-old chef. But then again, Leah Chase’s career has been anything but usual.
It began when, as a teenager, she moved across Lake Pontchartrain from Madisonville, Louisiana, her hometown, to New Orleans. Working at restaurants in the French Quarter, she got a sense of the kind of food and service white diners enjoyed in the era before desegregation. That experience was the seminal influence on her decision to create a restaurant for black patrons that would be similarly impressive.
When she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr. in 1946, she married into a restaurant family. Five years earlier, his parents had created a sandwich shop that also sold lottery tickets. Before long, Leah Chase’s influence was felt on the expanding menu as she introduced shrimp cocktail, lobster Thermidor, and other dishes that many of her patrons were unfamiliar with. She laughs now at her youthful brashness, but it worked. In the 1950s, Dooky Chase became the destination restaurant for black New Orleanians celebrating Little League championships, graduations, and wedding anniversaries.
It was also the destination for top black performers playing gigs in New Orleans. To this day, chef Leah remembers the favorite dishes of many great performers. Nat “King” Cole liked 4-minute eggs. Lena Horne liked fried chicken. Duke Ellington was a gumbo man, while Cicely Tyson liked crab meat. Perhaps the first wave of her career reached its apotheosis in 1961 when Ray Charles recorded “Early in the Morning Blues,” and improvised the lyric “I went to Dooky Chase to get something to eat. The waitress looked at me and said, ‘Ray you sure look beat.’”
In addition to her culinary significance, Chase has also played an important role in New Orleans civic life. During the civil rights movement, integrated groups of civic leaders would meet at Dooky Chase when such meetings were illegal. National politicians have made the restaurant a must-stop when they are in town. President George H. Bush had quail and grits the last time he was there. President Obama famously received a scolding when he added hot sauce to his gumbo before tasting it.
Like many of the classic restaurants of New Orleans, Dooky Chase was badly flooded in 2005 when the federal levees failed during Hurricane Katrina. One of chef Leah's grandsons is a fireman, and he was able to rescue the impressive art collection from the walls before mildew set in. Still, it was more than a year before the restaurant itself was back in business.
While New Orleanians each have their favorite Dooky Chase dish, chef Leah is perhaps best known for her gumbo z’herbes, a dish Creoles traditionally ate on Holy Thursday, just before Easter Sunday. That dish, combining meat, sausage, and ground greens (any combination of vegetables ranging from collard greens and mustard greens to beet greens, carrot tops, lettuce, and cabbage), is increasingly common on local menus now, due mostly to the influence of Leah Chase.
Though she has been cooking nearly 80 years, the last decade and a half has seen chef Leah receiving a range of commendations. Just last year she garnered a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award and made a cameo in Beyoncé's "Lemonade" video.
If ever there was a time for chef Leah to rest on her laurels, it would be now, but she's not. You will still find her behind the stove four days a week in one of her brightly-colored chef’s coats, stirring the pots and supervising the cooks. Though she lost her husband in 2016, chef Leah demurs when asked about slowing down or retiring.
Giving credit to all the people who have patronized restaurant and helped rebuild it after the flood, she says, "I’m not going anywhere. I owe too many people to die."