New Orleans's 93-Year-Old Chef Is Still Shaping Creole Cuisine

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New Orleans's 93-Year-Old Chef Is Still Shaping Creole Cuisine

At 93 years young, Miss Leah Chase has defined Creole cuisine in the Big Easy for over 75 years. But the importance of Chase and her restaurant stretch far beyond the food.
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Outside Dooky Chase Restaurant. All photos by Rebecca Ratliff.

Inside the New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase, the hallway from the dining room to the kitchen is left open to customers' prying eyes. If they're lucky, as they get up for another plate of Creole food from the elegant buffet, they might catch a glimpse of legendary chef Leah Chase as she and her staff prepare fried chicken and catfish, shrimp Clemenceau, gumbo z'herbes, collard greens, and more. Then, once they return to their seats, they get to plow their way through those foods as well as a bowl of red beans and rice, maybe some in-house prepared andouille sausage, or mac and cheese. Food that's as equally gut-busting as it is flavorful. The meal ends when their waiter brings out a serving of some fresh cobbler, perhaps a slice of pie, whatever was baked that day. Undoubtedly though, sometime during the meal, they picked up some of that mythical chicken that somehow retains its crisp, spicy, and moist characteristics as it sits in a buffet line, awaiting a hungry mouth.

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"I've never been to Dooky Chase and not had fried chicken," said famous New Orleans chef John Besh. He also noted the chicken Creole, which is smothered down with okra, tomatoes, peppers, and garlic. But the importance of Chase and the restaurant go beyond the food, which Besh alluded to by describing a recent lunch he had at the restaurant with Chase. "That was one of the happiest days of my life, and I just realized how honored I am to have someone like Leah in my life. I shouldn't waste the moment. I need to take what she has given to me and pass it on to the next generation."

The storied Creole restaurant and its chef are part of the fabric of New Orleans history. This year Dooky Chase celebrated 75 years of business and Leah Chase turned 93. While both are up there in years, they're still going strong. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and serves a special dinner every Friday night. Meanwhile, Chase continues to run the kitchen and cooks regularly, albeit with the help of a walker sometimes. But it's this dedication that earned her the 2016 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Ms. Leah Chase in the kitchen.

Considering her restaurant served as a regular meeting place for the Civil Rights Movement and the countless black voter registration campaign organizers, NAACP members, and political operators who took part in it, it makes sense she would receive such an honor for the history as well. Beyond that, it's also worth noting that she is a true vanguard of Creole food and the New Orleans culinary tradition that has become so popular today. That type of home cooking wasn't part of the French Quarter restaurant industry when Chase moved from the Louisiana countryside into the city.

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"I first worked in a restaurant in the French Quarter, and they did not serve what you see today," she told me recently. We met across a small desk in the middle of the restaurant's kitchen, a tall glass of iced tea in her right hand. She stopped to wipe her mouth with her apron. "They didn't have jambalayas or gumbos or the things they serve today." When she started cooking at Dooky Chase, her restaurant did prepare those dishes because that was the food she knew. Now it's a prevalent cuisine. After chef Donald Link asked her about daube, a Creole dish that involves larded calf and spaghetti, it appeared on the menu of his restaurant Cochon. Her mind, razor sharp, remains a true archive of the city's beloved culinary tradition—a recipe book all its own.

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But then, it's also worth circling back to her dedication to her restaurant and her love of work. Because of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the city's levees, her restaurant flooded, the water ruining the dining room, her beloved kitchen, and home. At 83, she moved into a FEMA trailer right outside the restaurant, ostensibly out of work. But even then, when anyone would have said it was OK to retire, to take a backseat, there was no question—she would reopen Dooky Chase and cook again.

Though that might seem an insurmountable difficulty, Chase was and still is committed to the grit of the work. The ugliness and strain are worthwhile for what they can teach.

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"I'm still trying, baby, because you go up and down," she said. "You don't know the future; you don't know what's going to happen. You might have a good year, and then here comes Katrina to knock you all out. Then you have to start all over again. That's trouble, but maybe that's better. You learn things."

Sara Roahen,—a food writer, the author of Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, and a former Southern Foodways Alliance board member, who visits Dooky Chase often for the shrimp Clemenceau and has a standing table every Christmas Eve—opened her home's kitchen to Leah Chase a few times during this period. It would have been unthinkable, she said, for Chase not to start cooking again.

"But you have to realize that it was more difficult than starting with a clean slate," Roahen explained. "You don't buy new chairs—you have to figure out if your current chairs are capable of being restored and then clean out your restaurant. Then you have to work with a very depleted labor pool. Your family is rebuilding their homes and also working really hard because money is tight."

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But today the restaurant is up and going. Beyond a recent health scare, Chase is doing well and taking her regular rounds through the dining room to check on customers and then returning to the kitchen to cook. I ate there recently and saw her toiling in the back. The next day I interviewed her. It seems she requires a pretty good reason not to be there, although you would think she has one.

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"Just say a prayer, 'Lord, get Leah back in her kitchen,'" Chase told me near the end of our interview. "I'm 93-years-old, so sometimes I don't do it. People say I've done enough, that I can retire. But that's not living. As long as you can do something, that's what you do. You work, you do, or else you're dead—that's what my father said—doesn't matter if you're breathing or not."

Before I left, Chase turned the tables and asked me about my life. It caught me off guard. But she wanted to get to know me and in that moment, she was more than an ear—she provided insightful advice and thoughts that I still carry and value. After talking to chefs and food writers throughout New Orleans, I realized this is typical of her. No matter her experiences, difficulties, and successes, she still takes a keen interest in people and truly cares about them.

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"It's the way that Leah makes you feel that's the difference," Besh said. "It really comes down to personality. In a day and age where we're so concept- and business-centric, we forget that the restaurant is a place of restoring."

It's one of the reasons why, at 93, Chase continues to work in her kitchen, share old Creole recipes with new chefs, and continues to engage in interviews. It's why Dooky Chase embodies New Orleans cuisine and the James Beard Foundation will honor her this year with that Lifetime Achievement Award. It's why going to her restaurant feels like childhood even though you're almost a couple decades removed from it, it's not the food you grew up with, and you're over a thousand miles from your hometown. Leah Chase carries an unwavering commitment, a compulsion almost, to engage in and learn about the world around her and then share it. It's a curiosity and a generosity that we all aspire to have, even though most don't have the energy for it. Sitting across a table from her, it almost seems easy sometimes.

"You'll come by and talk with me again soon, won't you?" she asked as I stood up to leave—others had arrived to speak with her. Her gaze never broke from my own and then she waved for me to bend over to where she sat, so I could hear her over the clatter of plates from the dishwashing station to her right.

"Just come back to the kitchen. I'll be here."