by C.C. Campbell-Rock
And with her heart always focused on helping others, her birthday celebration is a fundraiser gala to benefit the Chase Family Foundation, which supports historically disenfranchised organizations through contributions to education, creative and culinary arts and social justice.
Diners in the main dining hall of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, feel a warm breeze of home and elegance reminiscent of a family holiday gathering. The subtle colors of humanity and culture depicted in the New Orleans’ themed artwork adorning the walls document the city’s Black culture. There’s the snowball wagon, the Carnival Indians, an African- American child playing trumpet, and other original paintings rendered by New Orleans artists.
The atmosphere gives patrons an intense dose of the heartfelt southern hospitality that flows from the heart of New Orleans’ natives.
Dooky Chase’s menu and atmosphere capture New Orleans’ Creoles of Color culture: the blend of African-American, Native American and French culinary fusion is indelibly stamped on the eatery: the gumbo, stuffed shrimp, okra stew, fried chicken, fish, and potato salad, and entrées and desserts embody the history of the city’s founding cultures. It’s all there in the Treme-based restaurant.
Sitting at a small table in the kitchen, Mrs. Chase greets patrons who ask for photos and autographs. And sometimes, visitors will get more, such as a dose of motherly advice, conveyed by Leah Chase with all of the passion and insistence of a Orleans matriarch.
Newlyweds come to the kitchen. Mrs. Chase looks at them, then asks the bride, “Where’s your wedding band.”
“That’s another story,” the woman replies, glaring at her husband.
“Buy that woman a wedding band,” Mrs. Chase says.
Today, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant has been in the Chase family for four generations. Aside from the more than 100 awards and the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for culinary excellence, Mrs. Chase, the very heartbeat of the restaurant, is much more than an award-winning chef.
A HEART FOR HELPING
She is often referred to as the queen of Creole Cuisine. But she really is New Orleans’ Queen of Hearts, whose culinary skills and restaurant business have been the instruments used to pave the way for her true calling—helping others. It’s something she has been doing all of her life.
Mrs. Chase puts her philosophy into action when she travels to cook for various charities.
“I travel to Fort Wayne, Indiana to help raise money for the food bank. That soup kitchen gives complete meals out,” she says, adding that the organizers give each family enough food to feed all of the family members in their home.
Mrs. Chase also goes to Detroit every year to raise money for African-American students at Madonna College.
“Everywhere I go is to raise funds and I still like to do that,” she says, “But I have to get my grandson involved because I can’t get around like I used to.”
Her philanthropy, volunteer and advocacy efforts on behalf of others date back decades. She once served as the president of the Women’s Auxiliary of Flint Goodridge Hospital and as the chairwoman of one of the earlier Ebony Fashion Fair Shows, which served as a fundraiser to sustain the operational mission of Flint Goodridge Hospital, the city’s main healthcare facility for African Americans during the era of racial segregation.
And though she may not get around like she used to, she has hardly stopped.
“I’m always grateful for another day. I still have work to do. You have to uplift other people,” Mrs. Chase said recently. “Don’t walk over anybody, just try to help them up. Don’t turn your back away. Always see the good in people.”
Today, Mrs. Chase continues her philanthropic work through the Edgar “Dooky” Jr. & Leah Chase Family Foundation, which cultivates and supports historically disenfranchised organizations via contributions to education, creative and culinary arts and social justice.
On January 6, 2018, Leah Chase will turn 95 years old. A special celebration in her honor will take place that evening at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans on Loyola Avenue to benefit the Chase Family Foundation. The event begins with a patron party at 6 p.m. followed by the gala dinner at 7 p.m. Tickets are $250 person and can be purchased online at www.dookychasefoundation.org or by mail to P.O. Box 791313, New Orleans, LA, 70179.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Chase was one of 14 children born in New Orleans to Hortensia Raymond Lange and Charles Lange. Her mother was a seamstress and her father worked as a caulker in the shipyards. She spent her adolescence in Madisonville but returned to New Orleans to attend school at 12 years old.
“My daddy was a staunch Catholic,” she says. Young Leah was sent to live with an aunt and attended St. Mary’s Academy, under the tutelage of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
“I did homework by lamplight,” she remembers. “It was hard without my family.” In those days, after the eighth grade, students would leave school and go to work. But Leah, a brilliant student, graduated from St. Mary’s Academy at age 16.
Failing to find work in New Orleans, she returned home and cleaned houses and washed clothes for a living. She then returned to New Orleans and lived with a cousin. “It was a hard struggle but I had to wing it on my own. Creole girls of color went to work in the sewing factories but that wasn’t me,” she remembered. “So I went to work in the French Quarter.”
Chase was a waitress at the Colonial Restaurant on Chartres Street, but she took the initiative to learn how to cook French cuisine “I was hired for one thing but you did another. I would go into the kitchen and wash dishes and watch the cook. I used to say, ‘If I just had my own restaurant. ‘ ”
DREAMS DO COME TRUE
At Dooky’s there’s a photo of The Princess and the Frog, the 2009 American animated musical film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Set in New Orleans, the movie features a beautiful girl named Tiana, who dreams of owning a restaurant and a frog prince who desperately wants to be human.
Walt Disney Animation Studios CEO John Lasseter and a group came to dinner. I sat and talked with them,” Mrs. Chase recounts. “They (Lasseter, Ron Clements, and John Musker) took me to lunch at Antoine’s. David said, ‘You know, we’re going to have a Black princess but we’re going to base it on your life.”
Princess Tiana, the ninth Disney princess, is the company’s first African-American princess. “The alligator, which played jazz, was based on Dooky,” Chase adds.
Never far from her thoughts is her husband of 70 years, Edgar Lawrence “Dooky” Chase Jr., who passed away a little more than one year ago on Nov. 22, 2016.
“I’m still going through it,” she said of her loss. “I was 21 or 22, when I met Dooky,” Mrs. Chase remembers. She was a few years older than him and his family didn’t approve of their union, at first.
“We got married when he was 18. He had been on the road with his big band, Dooky Chase’s Rhythm Playboys. He was dynamite,” she says, eyes twinkling with thoughts of the love of her life. “Dooky Jr. started the progressive jazz movement in New Orleans. His idol was Dizzy Gillespie. Dooky played trumpet the way Dizzy played. It was an improper technique (to blow with extended cheeks),” but that’s how he played. Dizzy became our friend until he died.”
Dooky, Jr. had his father’s entrepreneurial spirit; and at age nineteen, he promoted the first racially integrated concert at the Municipal Auditorium.
When Dooky Chase Sr. died in 1957, Leah went to work in the family restaurant with her mother-in-law, Emily. And Dooky Jr. gave up his first love—music—to also man the restaurant. “He thought I would stay home and raise my children. I told him I could work and raise the children, too.”
The couple had four children, Emily, Leah, Stella and Edgar Dooky Chase, III.
“Emily died and left us seven children,” says Mrs. Chase, who has, in all, 16 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. She is proud of the fact that all of her grandchildren finished college and “most have two degrees.”
Daughter Stella, a retired teacher, has taken over Dooky Jr.’s role as general manager.
Chase said her vision was to create a “top shelf” restaurant for African Americans during the dark days of segregation. “The worse thing about segregation was they kept you from learning. It wasn’t important to sit next to whites but it was important to have the same opportunities.
“Dooky would say, ‘You’re never satisfied’,” says Chase. “It’s not that I’m not appreciative but you must keep trying to grow and make things better. Every day, when I got home I would read and learn.”
And learn she did. She watched a good friend and restaurateur, Ella Brennan, grow the Brennan family restaurants. “She was so wonderful to me. She runs an operation that is unbelievable. She’ll tell you she started by cleaning the toilets.”
During segregation, Dooky’s was the place to eat for celebrities like Ray Charles. “Ray Charles would come all the time. That’s why he wrote the “Early Morning Blues”. We would stay open until four in the morning.”
She remembers Pete Fountain would come in for steak and lobster at 4 a.m. Duke Ellington also visited.
In creating the “top shelf” restaurant, Chase convinced her mother-in-law to invest in the same elagant chairs she saw at Brennan’s. We remodeled the whole restaurant and created the Gold Room. I made Austrian curtains by hand and got blisters,” she reminisces. “No Blacks had ever seen such opulence. They would drink in the parlor and dine in the Victorian Room.”
Splendor and finery, aside, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant occupies a special place in America’s Civil Rights History. The couple’s hosting of civil rights leaders was another facet of their commitment to helping others.
Civil rights activists gathered to strategize there. One of the servers, Doris Castle’s daughter, Oretha Castle Haley and her fellow Freedom Riders gathered there, as did civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud, N.O. Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial, U.S. Ambassador and former Atlanta Mayor Rev. Andrew Young (a New Orleans native), Louisiana’s first Black State Supreme Court Justice Revius Ortique, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often met over a bowl of gumbo in the secluded Upstairs Dining Room.”
Dooky Chase’s has also had the pleasure of serving both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, Hank Aaron, Ernest Gaines, Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, and a list of others.
The story of Mrs. Chase’s interaction with President Obama is legendary. “President Obama is the nicest man but he put hot sauce in the gumbo. I said, ‘Oh, no, Mr. Obama, you can’t put hot sauce in my gumbo,” she laughs.
Chase met Bill Clinton in Atlanta. “He’s good friends with Hank Aaron, whose daughter is married to my grandson, Victor.”
And she still hears from President George W. Bush.
“He wasn’t a good president but he was a nice person,” Chase says. “He asked if I would fix him breakfast. He came with an entourage. He brought the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Canada. He might not have done the job we hired him to do but he was the kindest man.”