met Leah Chase in 1960 while visiting my Great Aunt, Elizabeth Rudison Haynes, in the Lafitte Projects, a housing project in the Tremé District of New Orleans. At 90 years old, Aunt Elizabeth’s word was gospel among family members. She took one look at me and told my mom, “that boy is thin as a rail. Baby, here’s a dollar, go across the street to Dooky’s and get yourself a sandwich.” I immediately went outside, crossed the common grounds at a good pace and was greeted by Leah Chase as I strolled up to the counter of Dooky Chase Restaurant. She studied me, smiled, then asked, “what you want darlin’? My response, I don’t know. She then said, “you wait right here,” came back 5 minutes later and said, “try this oyster po’boy.” I have been hooked on Dooky’s ever since and a lifelong fan of “Mama” Chase.
aving visited with restaurateurs throughout the southern United States, I am most compelled by those that are “family affairs.” Dooky Chase Restaurant was founded in 1941 by Edgar “Dooky” Chase Sr. and his wife, Emily Chase. Their son, trumpeter, composer and orchestra leader Dooky Chase, Jr. married Leah in 1945. Years later, when the elder Chase began to decline in health, Edward Chase Jr. stopped touring, he and Leah opting to help out with the restaurant, then taking over management when the senior Chase passed away. Decades later, Edgar Chase IV, great grandson of the founder, gave up an accounting career and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, a world renown Culinary School in Paris, France. He now is Dooky Chase’s Executive Chef. Leah’s daughter and namesake, Leah Chase, an accomplished jazz vocalist, and Edgar Chase IV’s twin brothers, Travis and Trevor Chase, also are active in the restaurant. Leah Chase remains Matriarch and Queen.
eah chase has written cookbooks, appeared on national cooking shows with other celebrity chefs such as Julia Childs, and has received numerous honorary degrees. National and international media outlets have celebrated her life with hundreds of articles and documentaries. Her community involvement is extensive, serving on the boards of several New Orleans foundations including the Urban League, Arts council of New Orleans and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Leah Chase’s awards also have been numerous, from organizations as diverse as the NAACP, National Conference of Christian & Jews and the National Council of Negro Women.
he reputation of a great chef also can be measured by the diversity of the clientele served. Leah Chase is beloved by patrons throughout the world. The list of celebrities in America that have been served and entertained by “Mama” Chase reads like a “who’s who” of American History: President Barak Obama, former President George W. Bush, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Poitier, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Cicely Tyson, Toni Morrison and many, many more. Having lived in New Orleans during the 1950s, the legendary Ray Charles was so enamored of Dooky Chase that he included the restaurant in the lyrics to his song, Early Morning Blues, ..I went down to Dooky Chase to get something to eat, the waitress said to me, ‘Ray you sure look beat.’ Now it’s early in the morning and I ain’t got nothing but the blues… Ray’s love affair with Dooky’s and their red beans & rice and fried chicken may have been his inspiration for “endowing a chair” for the study of African American Culinary Arts at Dillard University in New Orleans. He bestowed a gift of one million dollars to the university after accepting an Honorary Degree in May of 2003.
uring my visit to Dooky’s last summer, I invited James Pleasant and Eileen Johnston to come along. They are a couple from Washington DC that I met while enjoying a show by New Orleans trombone virtuoso, “Trombone Shorty,” the evening before. I promised them that their visit to New Orleans would not be complete unless they joined me there for lunch. Dooky’s and Leah Chase never disappoint. Eileen, Registrar of the Howard University Gallery of Art, was immediately blown away by the tantalizing art that adorns the restaurant walls, artists that include painter Gilbert Fletcher, Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, Media Artist Claire Foster Burnett and Woodcut Printmaker Sue Jane Smock. James, Howard University Building Operations Manager, was floored by the overall décor, something that made him put an awesome camera to great use. We were all captivated by the splendid feast of gumbo, fried chicken, shrimp etoufeé and red beans & rice. Of course, there also was the incredible experience of oral history that only Leah Chase can so eloquently provide, spending almost half an hour at our table!
Lunch or dinner at Dooky Chase Restaurant is a must experience. It unquestionably is a New Orleans institution, Leah Chase, a Louisiana Treasure.
All photos compliments of James Pleasant, Copyright © 2010.
For more info on Leah Chase and Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans, LA, purchase a copy of American Blues, Jazz and Soul Food, now available in hardback, paperback and e-book on Ahthorhouse.com.