Remembering Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine
I don’t remember when I first heard of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, but I do remember that on my first trip from New York to New Orleans in the 1970s, as a writer for Essence magazine, it was a must-stop spot on my itinerary. Although I knew the restaurant had served as an important gathering place for activists during the Civil Rights Movement and that Leah Chase had a pivotal role in that struggle, I didn’t meet her on that visit. In fact, the exact time and place of our first meeting are lost in time. I recall little of the food, only the vague layout of the small eatery she ran with her husband, Edgar Lawrence “Dooky” Chase, Jr., that would become one of the city’s most renowned restaurants and a hub of my New Orleans life.
Around the late 1980s, as a specialist on the food of the African-Atlantic world, I was invited to a Creole food conference at the Hermann-Grima Historic House in New Orleans. When I was asked to suggest another individual to speak, Leah was my first choice. She appeared and enchanted the audience, and I was able to introduce her to my mother, who was also in attendance. They became friends, bonding over their January birthdays, their stubborn Capricorn goat-headed natures, and their love of food. I became enamored of the city and began to travel there frequently and see Leah more often, especially when my mother was in tow. A decade later, I was a New Orleans homeowner.
The warmth of the welcome, the dazzling array of African American art on the walls, and the home-cooked tastes from the kitchen gradually made Dooky Chase’s a regular spot for us. After my mother died in 2000, Leah, sensing my grief, took me aside and said, “I’ve decided I’m going to take you on.” The following January, I marked my mother’s birthday by having a dinner party with Leah at Galatoire’s Restaurant—her first trip to the iconic place. (For much of Leah’s life, she would not have been admitted through the front door.) It was a night of celebration and remembrance.
Celebrations were the leitmotif of this phase of our friendship. I hosted a series of Holy Thursday parties at Dooky Chase’s, complete with place cards, table favors, and loads of red wine along with the traditional gumbo z’herbes and fried chicken. I even earned a nickname: Doctor Smart Mouth. Aunt Leah, as I’d begun to call her by then, loved to tease
me and gleefully told the world that, “Other folks would come, have their little cup of gumbo and their piece of fried chicken, and go home. Jessica came and had a full-out party.” Those Holy Thursday get-togethers went on for a few years until they, like all life in New Orleans, were disrupted by an ill wind known as Hurricane Katrina.
That hurricane changed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant and the city. The tight-knit Chase family saw homes destroyed and the restaurant overwhelmed by water. Much was lost. But Leah’s beloved art collection was saved, and the family—the heart and soul of this spot—was safe. It was a time of struggle yet also a time of triumph for them. Leah and her husband stayed close by and oversaw the rebuilding of the restaurant from matching his-and-hers FEMA trailers on the vacant lot across the street.
Our friendship continued to grow with visits, including her brief stay with me on Martha’s Vineyard and a rollicking week in Barbados, where I was working as a consultant for a hotel chain. Then we had a few informal public conversations for two New Orleans museums, where we discussed everything from the notables who had visited the restaurant (including Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and Ray Charles) to her extensive art collection, which was back and hanging on the newly restored walls. I learned about her love of art and artists, her ferocious work ethic, and her devotion to her Catholic faith.
Over the years, my Aunt Leah had morphed from being a local-restaurant powerhouse into a national culinary legend. She had become a superstar. Presidents stopped by to eat, and she was even the inspiration for the character Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. She took it all in stride, delighting in her fame yet still remaining true to herself.
I grew to know that Dooky and Leah were a matched set: a couple who understood each other’s strengths and weaknesses. While she’d often fuss about “Dooky this” or “Dooky that,” she was deeply in love with and bonded to that man, who was both her anchor and her partner for seven decades. The restaurant that gave her fame bore his family name and was their co-creation, even if much of his work went unseen. When he died in 2016, the winds in her sails were diminished and she felt his loss acutely.
Saying goodbye is always difficult. The longer people are around, the more you think they will be there forever. “My legs hurt, Jess,” she would say. Increasingly, she was off to see the doctor, but she always returned to her kitchen where, seated on her walker, she observed everything that went on with no hesitation about admonishing or correcting. Daughter Stella Chase Reese had taken over the running of the front of the restaurant. On my visits back, I would find my seat in the dining room and then go and talk with Aunt Leah.
We’d also go out to dinner at places she liked or wanted to try. As a dining companion, she was fascinating. Everyone always saluted her like she was visiting royalty, and she was engaged by the chefs who invariably came out to see her. Her unending curiosity about the world meant she was captivated by new tastes and unusual menu items. Our last outing was up the street to Gabrielle Restaurant, where she reveled just as much in their enthusiastic welcome as in chef Greg Sonnier’s Cajun food, which was richer and denser, very different from her own recipes.
Illness had begun to make a relentless appearance. Eventually, there was hospitalization. Her family allowed me to visit and were kind enough to share their matriarch with me. Our final meeting was at her son’s home. At one point, she said, “This is hard, Jess!” I was too moved to reply. I do not recall her last words to me, but I do remember the feeling of farewell in the sense of the French word adieu (“to God”) that accompanied my leaving and heading back to New York.
The next time I saw her, she was radiant, rested, and in repose in her coffin at her memorial service where I had been asked to speak. I began my brief remarks with the words, “There is a hole in my heart tonight, but that hole is smaller than the rend in the cultural fabric of New Orleans.” That tear remains.
Now I visit the restaurant during each trip, but it’s hard to go to the kitchen where Aunt Leah’s worktable stands unoccupied. The fried chicken is still the same, the art on the walls is the same, and so is the welcome. It is now entrusted to Tracie Haydel Griffin, Leah’s granddaughter. The upstairs dining room, in which much of New Orleans’ Civil Rights history took place, will be reopened. The bar is being redeveloped in tribute to her husband, who was a master mixologist. And dinner service with a menu by grandson Edgar L. “Dooky” Chase IV will also gradually return. The work is helmed by her children and undertaken by the fourth generation of the family. My friend is gone, but the continuity is assured.