Leah Chase's story has been chronicled by great journalists. She's fed presidents, civil rights leaders, musicians, artists, and most notably (and unfailingly) her resilient neighbors of Tremé. But the fried chicken she serves—golden, briny, and crackling—is the same for every mouth she feeds. Chase serves not only food (albeit possibly the best Creole in the country), she just plain serves. And for all the humble and not-so-humble bellies she fills at Dooky Chase, Chase is a model for the outsized impact a cook and her food can have on a community.
Chase, like so many cooks, fell into her career first by waiting tables, and after falling in love with food—and Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr.—she signed on to take up his family's business. Chase walked into Dooky Chase (her mother-in-law's domain) expecting to change the menu and service overnight to reflect the standards of all-white restaurants in the French Quarter. "I came in 1946, and I knew about the other side. I wanted to change everything, make the whole thing work differently," says Chase. But she quickly discovered that cooking wasn't about making things she liked; it's about feeding the people.
"Black people didn't eat cream sauces," she says. "I put lobster thermidor on the menu. It didn't go anywhere at all. I realized the food that they like, that's what you put on." Sticking to her Creole roots proved a better long-term business plan (six decades and counting), and it established Chase as the reigning queen and de facto expert of Creole cuisine.
Even though she has clung to Creole, a hallmark of Chase's staying power is her ability to change—and to promote change with steaming bowls of gumbo. Pre-Food Network, cooks, let alone a black female cook in the Jim Crow South, had little social standing. "I couldn't even get in the so-called black society—if there is such a thing—because I was just a cook with only a high school education," says Chase. But that didn't stop her from doing her cook's part to fuel the civil rights movement. The Chases hosted mix-raced (and, at the time, illegal) political gatherings upstairs at Dooky Chase for the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, black voter-registration campaigns, and other causes.
Chase fed more than political elite. In a time when "African Americans or Creoles of color did not eat out," Dooky Chase gave its down-and-out neighborhood a symbol of dignity, a place where people of color could eat at tables set with linens and china. And at a time when museums were off limits to the black community and when black artists had little standing in the art world, Chase began collecting and displaying African American art at Dooky Chase. Her collection and pioneering spirit earned her a post, the first ever for a black person, on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art. The institution (also host to StarChefs.com 2012 New Orleans Rising Stars Gala), in turn, is honoring Chase next month with an exhibition featuring paintings of Chase by Gustave Blache III.
Chase's beloved art—of little value to looters and hung above the flood line—was one of the few things Hurricane Katrina left intact at Dooky Chase. Dooky's art and its tenacious proprietor survived. And they came back, if not to full speed, thanks to a national outpouring of love, support, and money for Leah Chase. The French Quarter waitress had become a cultural institution in her own right, someone so valuable to New Orleans that she could not fail.
Just as tirelessly as volunteers, manufacturers, and fundraisers worked to help re-open the doors of Dooky Chase, 82-year-old Chase pushed even harder. "This is more than a restaurant to me. This is my life. Sixty-five years I've put in this restaurant," she says. "People sometimes don't realize that. That's my guest. I live my life trying to please my customers." At 89, Chase is still in the kitchen, her customers still happy. And the walls of Dooky Chase—the same walls that sheltered civil rights leaders, celebrated black artists, withstood Katrina's wrath, and created home and hope for a community—still stand and serve."No matter what you do, you can make a difference," says Chase. "Even if you're digging gutters, you can make a difference. That's all I've done in life, tried to make a difference.