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If you go to New Orleans, the song goes, you ought to see the Mardi Gras.
If you’re a food lover and you go to New Orleans, you make a pilgrimage to Dooky Chase’s on Orleans Avenue, to eat Creole cuisine.
And if you were lucky, you got to meet Mrs. Leah Chase, its owner and chef, who was still cooking up a storm at age 96.
So, the news of her death Saturday night drew an audible sign of sadness throughout the culinary world, and among people who love the city.
“She was a proud entrepreneur, a believer in the Spirit of New Orleans and the good will of all people, and an extraordinary woman of faith,” said a statement from her family.
In nearly a century, Mrs. Chase spanned not only culinary history but cultural history in New Orleans.
When she arrived in 1940, African-Americans could only work in some restaurants, like the cafe in the French Quarter where she found a job as a waitress.
But, they could not eat the fine food served in the most fashionable places in the Quarter and other parts of town.
Mrs. Chase was determined to change that. In 1946, she married Edgar Dooky Chase Jr., whose family owned a modest sandwich shop and lottery ticket outlet in the Treme, a traditionally black section of New Orleans west of downtown.
It was a lively spot that doubled as a bank for black workers on the Mississippi River, who could not open accounts at white owned banks. Instead, they cashed their paychecks at Dooky Chase’s, where they also bought drinks and po’boys.
But Mrs. Chase had higher aims. She turned Dooky Chase’s into a sit down restaurant, with better quality Creole cuisine, tablecloths, and walls with colorful art by African-American artists including Jacob Lawrence.
By the time of her death, Mrs. Chase had served presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who she admonished with a playful slap for putting hot sauce in her famous gumbo.
She served plenty of tourists, too, as well as locals and split-timers like me, who live in the city part of the year.
“I don’t care if you’re the pope or the president, you have to eat. And I can cook for you,” she said in a 2016 interview, when she was given a lifetime achievement award by the James Beard Foundation. “All I do is try to make people happy through food.”
She became a special draw for a high profile black clientele that included entertainers like Sarah Vaughn and Ray Charles, producer Quincy Jones as well as civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall.
They, along with groups of Freedom Riders, plotted strategy in her dining room and the private room upstairs.
“In some ways, we changed the course of America, right here in this restaurant,” Mrs. Chase said in the James Beard interview.
But, history dealt Dooky Chase a devastating blow during Hurricane Katrina in 2015.
The restaurant was forced to close for two years by five-and-a-half feet of flood waters that ruined everything but the art on the walls.
Mrs. Chase evacuated first to Birmingham, Alabama, then to Baton Rouge, returning to New Orleans to live in a FEMA trailer while she surveyed the damage.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, but accept it. You take a good cry and you keep going,” she said in 2015.
Her legacy turned her restaurant into a monument to culinary and social history, yet Mrs. Chase remained as contemporary at the time of her death as she was throughout her lifetime.
In 2016, her image appeared in Beyonce’s video for Lemonade, sitting on a high backed chair, as befitting a queen of cuisine.
All that might make someone else a distant figure, especially given all the demands for her attention.
And yet, Mrs. Chase seemed to graciously accept the accolades, and to make some time for the flocks of people who wanted to meet her.
Brett Martin, the food critic for GQ, captured her position in New Orleans perfectly in his tweet.
There’s already talk of how to honor Mrs. Chase. One bubbling suggestion is to rename Lee Circle for her, perhaps along with the late musician and composer Allen Toussaint, who died in 2015.
Yet, someone like Mrs. Chase will best be remembered for her food and hospitality, never more so than every Holy Thursday.
Each year on the day before Good Friday, Mrs. Chase served gumbo z’herbes, a meat and herb laden version of her gumbo.
As Brett Anderson wrote in the New Yorker, the three seatings that day became some of the most sought-after restaurant reservations of the year.
Politicians, food writers, business leaders and regular diners flocked to Dooky Chase, where Mrs. Chase would appear at the end of the meal before the gathered customers.
Three years ago, she told the crowd, “I’m still going at ninety-three. And I’ll still be going at ninety-five.”
Indeed she was, with a victory lap.
June 2, 2019 at 12:09PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs