For the Queen of Creole Cuisine, there are two ingredients that she simply cannot cook without and most certainly will not skimp on. “Don’t come in my kitchen if you don’t like butter. I love butter,” says Leah Chase, head chef at New Orleans staple Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. “And I don’t care what you cook, darling, you have to cook it with all the love you can.” Instantly, it becomes clear why President Barack Obama and then-President George W. Bush have pulled up chairs at her restaurant to lick their fingers after a serving of fried chicken and partake of her sage advice. The love and the soulful flavors have kept guests packing the dining room since she sautéed her way into the kitchen in 1946 after marrying musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II. And she’s still whipping up her classics in that kitchen.
“The same dishes make me excited [now that did then]. I just got through with 20 or 30 gallons of gumbo,” says Chase, 90, who in spite of a limp is still hand chopping seafood, grinding her own herbs and doing the kind of work that has forced strong men decades younger into retirement. “I want it to go out there right, so I take the same extra pain, love and care that I did 60, 70 years ago.”
Back then, elegant restaurants were a privilege enjoyed by only a White clientele. Chase worked to change that, teaching formal service and refined Creole cooking to staff both in front and back of the house, eventually adorning the walls of the restaurant with pieces from her own collection of paintings by African-American artists. “I want it to be perfect, says Chase of her restaurant’s ambience. “I like my white tablecloths and my linen napkins.”
The restaurant became a hub for the community—an essential stop for musicians, civil rights leaders and actors—but with laws declaring that the races were “separate but equal,” Dooky Chase was only able to serve a segment of the population until the arrival of integration. After the restaurant was awash in flood water, then looted amid 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, relocation offers poured in. The Chases stood their ground, setting up shop in a FEMA trailer and fueling the recovery with their hearty gumbo. They knew that moving would signal wavering confidence in their beloved city, and their steadfastness was rewarded.
These days, skin color and hurricanes are the least of Chef Chase’s worries. With Easter fast approaching, the restaurant faces one of its busiest times of the year, when she prepares to cook up to 100 gallons of gumbo z’herbes, commonly known as “green gumbo.” On Holy Thursday, three days before Easter, the historically predominant Catholic population of New Orleans is allowed a big meat meal before the high holiday. Guests flock to enjoy a bowl of Chef Chase’s gumbo made up of nine different greens, sausage, chicken and more. “We always say when we serve you gumbo z’herbes that you will have a new friend for every green I have in the pot,” says Chase as she chuckles about the superstition that her repeat customers are sure to mention every year. “That’s a lot of love in a pot.”
There is that love again. And not only does the affection make for great gumbo, but it also helps her keep up with her 22 great-grandchildren.
She and Dooky II had four children of their own, then came 16 grandchildren, followed by this new generation who have made family dinners—which are held at the restaurant because of sheer size— a loud, good time. “It is just fun, especially with those little ones,” Chase says, recalling one 4-year-old great-granddaughter showing her how to walk faster. “They are more than you can handle.”
For Leah Chase, no matter how long it takes her to walk from table to table greeting guests or how many years she spends bent over a stove, feeding people mouth-watering food is a blessing. Her blessing. “That encourages me to do better and to make a better world for my people.”