—Ray Charles, "Early in the Morning Blues"
Leah Chase is co-owner and chef at New Orleans' landmark restaurant "Dooky Chase." This family-run restaurant was the original creation of Dooky Chase, her father-in-law and his wife. When she married Dooky Chase II, she was not classically trained, but she began cooking the Creole specialties the restaurant has been famous for. Having heard so many references to her in my research for this issue, I phoned Leah to ask for a picture of herself, and the following interview magically occurred.
Leah has the sweetest, most mellifluous voice, softened even further by a touch of Louisiana cadence. I remarked to Leah that she looks even prettier now than she did in Creole Feast, especially with the red kerchief on her head. She immediately responded:
"Now some people criticize me for (wearing) that, because that's what I always cook in. I don't feel like I should wear the big white toques and such because I'm not classically trained. But some say that it makes me look like Aunt Jemima, and I just say, if I could be on every box in America, that wouldn't be bad!"
"Dooky Chase's has been here so long, 54 years...We started in 1939, right across the street, the Globe Sandwich Shop. We opened when segregation was still in the South, and we always had big crowds here. It was a meeting place, and if a person needed to see someone in the black community, they'd come here, because this was where everyone met.
"We had Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne ...There was no other place to go, really. And I'm so grateful to the ones like Lena, and our dear Sarah who passed away a few years ago, because they always remembered us, even after segregation. Sarah used to order our stuffed crabs, and Lena, she likes our fried chicken.
"Duke Ellington got us selling Heineken beer, because that's what he liked to drink. Cab Calloway, John F. Kennedy, the Jackson Five—everybody comes here to see what its all about. We make Creole food. and this city has so much good food. You know there's White Creole and then there's "Creole de Colour"—don't ask me where it came from—I don't know, it's just been that way, and I guess I'm just in the thick of it all. But the food here is all so unique.
"(Chef) John Folse, you know, is really a Cajun/Creole mixture—he was brought up by a black woman after his mother died and she raised all those children. John is so lovely and generous, he's not at all selfish and so good about always helping others. He is a sincere man, and he loves his neck of the woods."
"That book was so important. All the people in it contributed so much (to our cuisine). I never had the opportunity to work in a big restaurant, but these people were the backbone of all those restaurants in New Orleans. they were all working in the back kitchens of the big hotels. (Creole Feast) gave them visibility."
"God, No!!! He can't even boil water...As I say, he's the brains and I'm the brawns. He does all the bookkeeping, and with his name on the door (it was his father's place before him), all the bills go to him... "
Leah still does all the cooking at Dooky Chase, which we both agreed, was the real fun, and she's just as glad to have Dooky be the one to pay the bills.
(This article originally published in 1997)
Modified March 2007
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