Hungry for History is a series that explores both Black contributions to mainstream cuisine and the chefs/food entrepreneurs that are making moves, both present and past. In honor of her recent recognition as the 2016 recipient of the coveted James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, EBONY.com sat down with Dooky Chase’s Leah Chase. Here about how this New Orleans gem built a restaurant staple, starred in Beyonce’s Lemonade video and schooled President Barack Obama on how to eat her renowned gumbo.
It is no surprise at all to hear restaurateur Leah Chase mention “gumbo” during the first five minutes of our conversation in her well-appointed suite in Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria. EBONY.com caught up with Chase, an elegant woman with an easy smile, the day before the 93-year-old would take the stage to accept a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.
Chase’s cookbook, The Dooky Chase Cookbook, published in 1990, contains four versions of the dish: Creole, Des Herbes; Okra; and Poule d’eau.
But Chase wasn’t referring to a specific recipe or technique when during our gumbo discussion, she grew more animated with each word as she instead described the President Barack Obama “hot sauce incident,” aka, when the 44th President of the United States paid her a visit and was served a bowl.
“I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” she said of the Commander-in-Chief’s treatment of Louisiana’s official state dish. “I love Obama, but he picked up a bottle of hot sauce and began pouring it over my gumbo.”
She pauses:” No one pours hot sauce on my gumbo. Of course, I had to stop him.”
And who could blame the woman who was raised to appreciate, and eat, excellent cuisine in its authentic form?
Born in Madisonville, Louisiana on the Tchefuncte River (separated from New Orleans by Lake Ponchartrain), Chase describes growing up in rural Tammany Parish, where her father, Charles, and mother, Hortensia, raised 14 children on their family-owned farm. There, her people grew 15 acres of strawberries as well as greens, string beans, bell peppers, potatoes, eggplants, okra and onions.
“Our meals came from our land, and back then dishes like grits and sautéed onions were considered simple. Nowadays, people call those sautéed onions “caramelized,” she says with a hearty laugh.
In 1940, Chase moved to New Orleans and began working in the French Quarter as a waitress. Six years later, she married musician Dooky Chase Jr., whose parents Lawrence “Dooky” Chase Sr. and Emily Jennette Chase had opened Dooky Chase in 1941.
Adjacent to the French Quarter, on the edge of the Treme district of New Orleans, the sandwich shop sold Po-Boys, lottery tickets fried chicken and fried fish in the city’s historic Black and Creole Treme District. That was before Leah Chase stepped in to cook for the family business, eventually adding new ideas, recipes, original artwork, and more until the shop evolved into a sit-down restaurant.
When Leah and Dooky took over the restaurant, it had evolved into an important cultural gathering place for Black families and community groups, as well as what is described by the dookychasefoundation.org as one of the first public places in New Orleans “where mixed race groups could meet to discuss strategy for the local Civil Rights Movement.”
Dookey Chase flourished as a popular spot for Black sports figures, business people, educators, physicians, politicians and entertainers. Frequented by celebrities, Ray Charles mentions the restaurant in his rendition of Early in the Morning Blues.
The restaurant closed for about two years following Hurricane Katrina. Today, a rebuilt Dookey Chase continues as a celebrated New Orleans landmark.
Leah Chase celebrated her 93rd birthday in January of this year, but it only takes one moment in her presence to erase any age-based stereotypes.
As she continues to work in the restaurant that has flourished for 70 years, Chase’s passion for Creole dishes comes out as loudly and clearly as her interest in the Crescent City’s political and cultural events as well as her compassion for others. Put all of this together and stir in one more ingredient: a great sense of humor, and you’ll understand why she’s referred to as an inspiration by people lucky enough to be in her presence.
Disney creators reference Chase as one of the inspirations for the Princess Tiana character in Disney’s Princess and the Frog. But even more recently, Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade includes a cameo appearance of a regal-looking Chase seated atop a throne. It, like her recent award, is only fitting. She reigns on as the Queen of Creole Cuisine.
Donna Battle Pierce is a food editor and test kitchen director. Her most recent research included trips to explore public and private archives in South Carolina, South Dakota, Nebraska and Massachusetts for a book she’s writing about Black cooks, restaurants and recipes. She currently writes, teaches cooking classes and conducts seminars about saving family recipes. Follow her on Twitter @BlackAmerCooks.