Sit with Leah Chase and the attention in her restaurant swivels in the direction of her presence, much in the way that plants turn toward the light of the sun. Over the course of a recent interview, a steady stream of well-wishers, old friends, regional autograph seekers and international tourists managed to pull themselves away from their gumbo and fried chicken and find their way to a table by the bar where she sat. She received them all graciously, and each person left feeling a little bit better than they had before they stopped by.
That is Leah Chase, a chef and restaurateur whose landmark establishment, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, is one of a small handful of definitive New Orleans institutions, having transcended mere restaurant status to become something far greater. She possesses a personality that’s both warm and instantly engaging. Speak with her for a few minutes and you’ll feel like you’ve known her a long time. But that’s just part of it. At 90 years old she remains sharp as a tack, with a quick wit and an even quicker laugh. Her business sense, coupled with her famously tireless work ethic, is rolled up in a package that never fails to charm. For all these reasons, the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience has chosen her to be this year’s Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award winner.
It is a particularly complementary fit. Leah Chase is a remarkable woman who rose to success within the confines of a system that offered almost nothing in the way of real opportunity for the first half of her life. Chase grew up in rural Madisonville. Her parents scrimped and saved to send her across the lake to Catholic school in New Orleans. They were determined to provide opportunities for their children they didn’t have, and saw education as the means to get there. Her father put an emphasis on practical skills, tools that she could use in the real world. “When I was 5 years old I knew my multiplication tables front to back,” Chase recalls. “You got to learn that stuff. People will beat you out of your money if you don’t know how to count.”
When Chase turned 18, she moved to New Orleans. She was steered in the direction of a sewing factory to do piecework, setting the pockets on seersucker suits, because that was just what Creole women did back then. “But I just couldn’t see myself shooting out pockets all day,” she laughs. A door opened for her in 1941. When the United States entered World War II, women were hired to fill the labor gap. She got a job at the Colonial Restaurant on Chartres Street for $1 a day, plus tips, and loved it right from the start. “I had never even stepped foot in a restaurant before and I just felt like I was in heaven. I loved waiting tables, serving people good food and making them happy,” she says. But it wasn’t just personal satisfaction. Leah was too industrious and independently minded for it to end there. “When you love something you do, it makes you wish you had your own,” she says.
Soon after, she got the chance. In 1946 she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, a trumpet player whose family owned a small sandwich shop on Orleans Avenue. Her in-laws were popular people, and they were doing well, but they didn’t have the exposure to fine dining that Leah Chase brought into the equation. Over time she transformed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant into something special. In an era of segregation, here was a place that truly offered black patrons a fine-dining destination with accomplished food served in a welcoming atmosphere. A place for men to take dates and entertainers passing through town to both relax and see and be seen. Dining at Dooky Chase’s was an occasion, and it just made people feel better about themselves – much like Mrs. Chase. Later, its environs played a role in the civil rights movement, its upstairs room serving as a gathering place for activists both black and white.
Over the years the menu and the dining rooms expanded. It slowly filled up with an impressive collection of black art, interspersed with photographs of famous people who have come through its doors – including two past presidents. But on an easel in an anteroom near the hostess stand is a picture of a different sort. It is a framed drawing by Disney animators, signed by John Lasseter (among others) praising Ms. Chase as the inspiration for the lead character Tiana in the 2009 animated film The Princess and The Frog – the first Disney film to feature a black princess. While this is less weighty than feeding presidents and playing a role in the civil rights movement, it gets to the heart of Leah Chase: her presence touches the lives of others who in turn broadcast this inspiration to a wider world with inspiring results. In this case, she provided the spark for a Disney princess that provides a positive role model and makes girls around the country feel good about themselves. And at the end of the day, what could be finer than that?
The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience and The John Besh Foundation are partnering to create a star-powered event on Sat., May 25: “Funkin’ It Up” will feature the presentation of the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement in Hospitality Award to Leah Chase as well as nationally recognized celebrity chefs, live music performances and a live auction. Visit nowfe.com for more details and to purchase tickets.