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Chase, Leah

Leah Chase

1923–

Chef

Leah Chase has become a New Orleans fixture as the widely respected doyenne of Creole cooking. Her restaurant, Dooky Chase's, remains an attractive landmark in the city, and was one of the first fine-dining establishments in the Crescent City that seated African-American patrons. She married into the family who first opened it, and over the years helped to establish Creole food as a legitimate cuisine in America. Her business was hard hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but she was determined to return. "We had to gut the walls and put in all new equipment," she told Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Karen Herzog several months later, and though she noted that things were "coming along," she also said that "All the rebuilding efforts here seem too slow to me. I don't have a lot of time. I'm 83 years old and would like to just do what I have to do."

Grew Up on Farm

Chase was born in 1923 in Madisonville, Louisiana, a town in the St. Tammany Parish on the Tchefuncte River near Lake Ponchartrain. Her father was a shipyard worker, but her parents and 11 siblings also farmed a plot of land that provided the family's food. Her family was Creole, a term that was first used to denote the French and Spanish settlers in the New Orleans area when it was still European-held land, but by the time she was born the word referred to the region's mixed-race population—some of whom, like Chase, had Native American blood too. Hers came from a Choctaw Indian grandmother.

The Chase family grew okra, sweet potatoes, and strawberries, and they also had a steady supply of chicken and pork from a few animals they raised. Though food from their yard was abundant, other resources were scarcer, and Chase and her sisters wore dresses made from flour sacks. As one of nine daughters, she learned to cook at an early age, taking turns with her sisters in the kitchen. The family was Roman Catholic, and because there was no high school for blacks in Madisonville, she moved to New Orleans to attend St. Mary's Academy, the city's first Roman Catholic secondary school for African-American women. She graduated at the age of 16, and for a time worked as a domestic servant before taking a sewing job in a factory. Each of these jobs was in the primary fields of employment for black women at the time, but Chase felt ill-suited to both. "I couldn't just shoot out a hundred pants pockets a day," she recalled in an interview with Nancy Harmon Jenkins for the New York Times, "so I went to work in this restaurant—the Coffee Pot—which was a no-no, in the French Quarter of all places. And that was a double no-no."

Waiting tables was considered a rather undignified job for a Creole, many of whom took pride in their heritage as members of the largest population of free blacks in the years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 officially freed blacks from slavery. Moreover, the French Quarter—New Orleans's oldest neighborhood—had fallen on hard times by then. Many of its buildings dated back to the 1790s, and its most enduring families were descendants of the original French colonists to the area. By Chase's time, the Quarter was known for its cheap rents and lively bars. Though New Orleans was integrated to an impressive degree for a city in the U.S. South in the pre-civil rights era, many of the Quarter's older businesses held on to the strict Jim Crow laws that separated the races. But the onset of World War II had brought labor shortages, and blacks were able to find jobs in establishments previously closed to them. When Chase moved on to the posh Colony Restaurant as a waitress, it was the first time she had ever been inside a true fine-dining establishment.

Married into Restaurant Business

Chase met her future husband, Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, at a dance. His parents were fixtures in the Tremè neighborhood, the area that had been the epicenter of African-American life in the city for more than a century by then. His father, from whom he inherited his nickname, ran a small lottery-sales kiosk that also sold his wife's popular po' boy sandwiches. These were one of New Orleans's homegrown specialties, made from a crispy-crust French bread and stuffed with crawfish, fried oysters, pork sausage, or other fillings. Dooky II was a trumpeter and bandleader, and after the two wed in 1945, Chase spent the next few years traveling around the South with him and his band. They settled into a less nomadic existence when the first of their four children arrived, and by then his parents' takeout stall had become a full-fledged restaurant called Dooky Chase's. Located on Orleans Avenue, it was one of the first fine-dining establishments in the city that was open to blacks as well as whites.

When Chase's father-in-law fell ill in 1952, she and her husband became involved in running the business. "I thought I was going to be the little hostess out front," she told Jenkins in the New York Times article, "but there was nobody cooking so I landed in the kitchen." Chase had some ideas for moving forward with the restaurant, but her mother-in-law had firm ideas about its menu. "I wanted to shake things up, try some new dishes like lobster thermidor," Chase explained to Jim Auchmutey in an interview that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But folks around here didn't want that. They thought shrimp cocktail was something you drank. How were they supposed to know that stuff? They'd never been around real restaurants." In the end, Chase prevailed, and though she abandoned the idea of serving fancier food, she did expand the menu to include many classic Creole dishes, such as jambalaya, gumbo, trout amandine, and red beans and rice, a New Orleans staple that was traditionally made on Mondays and flavored with Sunday-supper pork bones. "By then, they weren't even cooking these things in the home anymore," Chase asserted in the New York Times interview with Jenkins, "and you never would have found them in a restaurant."

In a city with a number of world-famous restaurants, Dooky Chase's was the premier black dining establishment in the era before integration, and remained popular with the city's emerging African-American political, social, and economic leadership after the "whites-only" rules ended forever. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall were regulars when they came to town, and Chase's dining room was also a favorite of performers Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and Lena Horne. Pianist Ray Charles even mentioned it in his 1961 version of "Early in the Morning Blues," adding the line, "I went to Dooky Chase/To get me something to eat/The waitress looked at me and said/'Ray, you sure look beat.'"

Kept Creole Cuisine Alive

Chase eventually ridded the dining-room walls of the black and pink elephant wallpaper that dated from Dooky Chase's earliest days, and hung an impressive array of African-American art from Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and others. In the 1980s, the business expanded, though the Tremè neighborhood had fallen on hard times and sometimes taxicabs refused to venture into it. Its Orleans Avenue address was near to the looming Lafitte public housing project, but Chase claimed that in six decades in business the place had never once been robbed.

At a Glance …

Born on January 6, 1923, in Madisonville, LA; daughter of shipyard worker and farmer; married Edgar "Dooky" Chase II (a musician), 1945; children: daughters Leah, Emily (deceased), two sons.

Career: The Coffee Pot diner, New Orleans, LA, waitress, early 1940s; Colonial Restaurant, New Orleans, waitress, early 1940s; Dooky Chase's, chef, 1952–; cookbook author, 1990–.

Memberships: Board of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Addresses: Office—Dooky Chase's Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Ave., New Orleans, LA. Home—New Orleans, LA.

Chase gained national prominence as a pioneer of Creole cuisine once New Orleans-style cooking began to gain in popularity in the 1980s. She published her first collection of recipes, The Dooky Chase Cookbook, in 1990. Her second title, And I Still Cook, came out the year she turned eighty. Chase's signature dish is Gumbo Z'Herbes, a green version of the soup traditionally served on the Thursday before Easter, a holy day on the Roman Catholic calendar. It was a kind of irony that she had achieved celebrity-chef status after so many years in the kitchen, as she recalled in an interview with Milford Prewitt for Nation's Restaurant News, because she began her career at a time when there were no such culinary stars of either race, but blacks commonly staffed the kitchens of restaurants across America. As she told Prewitt, she had had a conversation with French-American cooking guru Jacques Pepin, who reminded her that until recent times, few chefs in France ever achieved the same level of renown given to the restaurant itself. "I think about that when I think about when I got started, and most of the chefs in the big restaurants were black," she mused. "But they're not black anymore."

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, there was flooding in the Tremè, and as much as five feet of water remained inside some parts of Dooky Chase's once it was over. Fortunately, Chase's grandson had acted quickly and put the restaurant's art collection in storage before the worst of the storm hit. Chase herself rode out the storm at a relative's home in Baton Rouge, which she said "was like the Underground Railroad—20 people" in a two-bedroom house, she told Mimi Read in O: The Oprah Magazine. "Of course I cooked for everyone. Sweetheart, who else?" She returned and moved into a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-provided trailer across the street from Dooky Chase's, and made plans to reopen. Her famous eatery had benefited from an immense amount of community goodwill and fundraising help from as far away as New York City and Milwaukee in its efforts to rebuild. By June of 2006, some of the million-dollar renovations had been completed, and Chase was still in her FEMA trailer. "I'm not worried about a house now," she told Herzog of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I've gotta rebuild that restaurant. If I don't, this neighborhood is gone. There's only one person other than me in the neighborhood now—only one other person between here and six blocks away." Once Dooky Chase's would reopen, she said, "I think all of my street will come back."

Selected writings

Books

The Dooky Chase Cookbook, Pelican Publishing, 1990.
And I Still Cook, Pelican Publishing, 2003.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 24, 2000, p. M1.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 31, 2006.

Nation's Restaurant News, June 2, 1997, p. 37.

New York Times, June 27, 1990; February 23, 2005; January 11, 2006.

O: The Oprah Magazine, March 2006, p. 236.

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