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The Extraordinary Life of Leah Chase 

Ian McNulty on New Orleans' queen of Creole cuisine

click to enlarge Chase (left) schools chef/TV star/author Bobby Flay on the finer points of making gumbo when he shot a segment on the subject in New Orleans in 2008.
  • Chase (left) schools chef/TV star/author Bobby Flay on the finer points of making gumbo when he shot a segment on the subject in New Orleans in 2008.

It's an article of faith in New Orleans that you'll always find Leah Chase at work at her Dooky Chase Restaurant, either in the kitchen – chopping trinity and stewing chicken before lunch service – or in the dining room, greeting cufflink-clad bankers at one table and guidebook-toting tourists at the next. These days though, there's also a good chance you'll find the 89-year-old icon of Creole cuisine speaking from a podium or seated at a head table, accepting the latest in a stream of awards and honors.

  Some of this recognition reflects her culinary legacy. The Southern Food & Beverage Museum named a permanent gallery in her honor in 2009, and earlier this year she received the National Restaurant Association's Faces of Diversity Award.

  But other honors from outside the restaurant industry show just how far this extraordinary woman's impact and influence have carried. Last year, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana presented Chase with its Ben Smith Award, its highest honor, for her work promoting racial equality. In April, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) honored her at a gala which simultaneously served as the debut for an exhibit of paintings of Chase by Gustave Blache III, a New Orleans-born artist now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and as a fundraiser for NOMA's new Leah Chase Art Purchase Fund, which will help the museum acquire more works by African-American artists. The museum was packed for the gala, which Chase insisted be held on a Monday night to accommodate the work schedules of her restaurant industry friends.

  Chase draws a crowd wherever she goes. Well-wishers flock for handshakes, hugs and cellphone snapshots with the chef who hosts U.S. presidents, inspired a landmark Disney animation character – Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, the studio's first African-American princess – and operates a family restaurant that famously served as a hub for activists and organizers at the height of the civil rights struggle.

  The attention is nothing new for Chase; official honors have been rolling in for decades. She greets it all with gratitude, but also with a dash of the characteristic feistiness that keeps the people around her on their toes.

  "It's been wonderful and just beautiful, and I'm so appreciative, but it bothers me a little too," she says. "If I'm getting all of this attention, does it mean other people need to step up more? Does it mean somebody else isn't doing their work?"

  Work is a compulsion for Chase, and her tenacity, combined with the courage to pursue unconventional and sometimes controversial decisions, has charted the course of her life and left her mark on the worlds of New Orleans food, culture, art and politics.

  "She is of a generation of African-American women who set their faces against the wind without looking back," says Jessica Harris, an author and expert on food of the African diaspora, and one of Chase's longtime friends. "It's a work ethic, yes, but it's also seeing how you want things to be and then being relentless about getting there. It's about making sure it gets done and making sure that your hand is doing its part."

Leah Chase can bring down the house with jokes and she can make people blush with compliments that they suddenly believe about themselves thanks to her convincing sincerity. Still, she isn't all sugar and honey. She's known to holler in the kitchen and bawl out employees who aren't performing to her standards. In her words, she's "always calling people stupid jackasses."

  "When I first met her, she told me her personal hero was General Patton," says John Musker, the director of The Princess and the Frog. "She became our General Patton because she worked so hard and inspired so many people." The World War II army commander may have inspired his troops, but he also famously slapped a shell-shocked G.I. and called him a coward — a tale Chase retells with evident admiration.

  But to understand Chase's story, one has to put aside today's familiar visage of the accomplished and indefatigable lady, seemingly always clad in her red chef's coat beneath her halo of white hair. Instead, try conjuring the image of an 18-year-old beauty who arrived in New Orleans in 1941, eager to get her start in the world, equipped with a high school education and strong values but hardly a cent to her name.

  Born on Jan. 6 — Twelfth Night — in 1923, the oldest of Hortensia and Charles Lange's 11 children, she was raised across Lake Pontchartrain in Madisonville, then a small shipping and boat-building town along the Tchefuncte River. Her father, initially a ship caulker, later had a Works Progress Administration job during the Great Depression, working for 50 cents a day.

  "Father told us to pray for work every day," Chase recalls. "We'd go fishing in the mornings so we could have perch and grits for breakfast — but a lot of times, man, it was just grits."

  There was no high school nearby for black students, so at age 13 Chase took a steamer across the lake to New Orleans to live with an aunt and attend St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic school for black girls in the city. She returned home after graduating at age 16, but two years later departed for New Orleans for good.

  "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."

  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.

  "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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