2000 Lifetime Achievement Award: Leah Chase
Leah Chase grew up in Madisonville, Louisiana. The oldest of 11 children, Chase maintains that her mother hated to cook, except for baking bread. Something in this upbringing stuck to Chase as she ventured out into the world. Abandoning Madisonville for New Orleans, she struck out for the French Quarter.
Within a short time she was hired at the Colonial Restaurant, where she worked under the tutelage of Bessie Sauveur. After marrying Edgar Chase II (Dooky), she moved into the family business, helping turn what had been a po’ boy stand into the Dooky Chase Restaurant, one of the most prominent Creole restaurants in the country. Chase took her place in the kitchen, and it has been there, under her hand, that she has wielded great influence on what is considered today to be Creole cuisine.
Leah Chase is a self-taught chef who never measures an ingredient. She has strong opinions about the basics of Creole cooking and does not hesitate to pronounce, “That’s not Creole.” The gumbo at the Dooky Chase Restaurant is what Leah Chase calls typical Creole gumbo: it contains crab, shrimp, chicken, two kinds of sausage, veal brisket stew, ham, and the perfect roux. “Not a real dark roux,” she says. “That’s more Cajun.” But she maintains the roux must be the perfect color and texture and that the cook had better stand by her pot to make that happen. “Don’t give me that sticky, gooey stuff.”
Chase has other rules: onions and seasoning must be cut fine—they cannot float; beans can’t float either—they have to be creamy; cook things to death—okra has to be cooked down, cabbage has to be smothered; a good dose of paprika makes gravy glow; onions and garlic and green peppers had better be there; and only the best ingredients will do—Vaucresson’s chaurice, the best smoked sausage, lean ham, and lean veal brisket. Creole desserts are pretty basic fare: bread puddings, pound cakes, and apple or custard pies. Under Chase’s hand, as one might expect, even the banal bread pudding gets a kick. She tosses in a glass of rum to “pep it up.”
Leah Chase played a significant role in the civil rights movement in New Orleans, as her restaurant became a gathering spot for activists. She has continued to play a role since then as a community leader. Her influence on Creole cooking meanwhile spread beyond the city in the 1970s, when she became the focus of articles in regional and national publications.
After Hurricane Katrina inundated much of New Orleans and left Dooky Chase wading in five feet of floodwater, the restaurant was temporarily closed. But with a collective effort of fundraising, Dooky Chase reopened in 2007.
– Carol Allen from the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture