New Orleans's Culinary Legend Leah Chase

A great article by Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Gate about the beautiful Leah Chase of Dooky Chase in New Orleans and her struggle to rebuild after Katrina.

    Leah Chase: The embodiment of New Orleans determination

    Many stories have been told about the devastation wrought by Katrina, and Leah Chase, who is 86, probably embodies the struggles of rebuilding as much as any other person.

    It took two years, and help from friends and customers, before she could open a take-out window. And even today, her restaurant Dooky Chase is only open for lunch three days a week.

    Last week, she was on a panel at the Association of Food Journalists meeting where she talked about Creole cooking. She was responding to an article written by Alan Richman in GQ magazine about how he had never met a Creole and basically called it a myth.

    She talked extensively about the food and how to preserve it; she was both eloquent and elegant: "It's important to take what you know and pass it on," she said. "People will mix it up, but that's OK."

    Later than night I talked to her at the Taste of New Orleans, where eight restaurants prepared signature appetizers for the 60 editors and writers.

    "So you're open only three days a week," I asked as we made our way into the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which happens to have a wing named after the pioneering African-American cook.

    "Yes, and it's killing me," she said. I though her age was catching up with her, but then she completed her thoughts: "I've got to get open for dinner. I just have to cook." She hopes she has 10 years left in her so she can rebuild the business and leave it to her grandchildren, who are already working in the dining room and kitchen.

    I knew I had to visit the restaurant, so the next day I skipped one of our sessions and headed out with some colleagues to Dooky Chase. It was both a reunion and a chance to pay homage; the last time I dined there was 27 years ago and I don't need a photograph to remember the elegance of the woman, dressed in a starched white chef's jacket, as she moved from table to table to greet both black and white customers.

    The room looked as fresh as it did more than a quarter century ago. It contained the same beautiful stained glass, the gracious southern furnishings and one of the best collections of African art I've seen. It was as if nothing had happened, and she was moving forward with purpose.

    The fried chicken was better than I remember, perhaps the best I've had. Golden and crunchy, it needed nothing more than salt, pepper and Cayenne to complement the moist flesh.

    Over the door of the entrance to the large red dining room was a picture of President Obama in her dining room, tucking a white napkin into his shirt collar in anticipation of red beans and rice. Another picture in the foyer showed him hugging the owner, who has added green and pink jackets to her wardrobe.

    In another photo, President George W. Bush was seated at a table with other dignitaries, and he was grasping her hand as she posed behind him.

    At the end of the meal I asked about Obama and her eyes took on a joyous sheen as she practically sang his praises in her deep, rich voice.

    I couldn't resist: "So you seem to be an equal opportunity cook," I said, as I drew attention to the other President. Her twinkle shifted a bit.

    "He's a lovely man," she said. "He's invited me to the White House twice and he's such a gentleman." After a short pause she said: "However some men just find themselves in the wrong job."

    Read more.
0 Responses