Growing up in a family of eleven children and fifteen plantable acres in rural Madisonville, Louisiana, in the 1920s and ‘30s, Leah Chase preferred sewing to kitchen work. Even so, some of her most vivid memories involve quail, plums, and purslane; strawberry wine, crowder peas, and pork with turnips. As the countryside offered no Catholic high schools for black children, Mrs. Chase moved to New Orleans when she was just thirteen years old to live with an aunt; she graduated high school at sixteen. As a young woman, Mrs. Chase found work at the Oriental Laundry, and then at The Colonial Restaurant in the Vieux Carré, where she made $1 a day and served lemon pie to Tennessee Williams.
She met and fell in love with the jazz trumpeter and orchestra leader Edgar Lawrence “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose parents ran a sandwich shop and vending business for lottery tickets on Orleans Avenue. Mr. and Mrs. Chase married in 1946, and she began working for her in-laws. It was here, at what would eventually be called Dooky Chase Restaurant, where Mrs. Chase’s innate creativity, her agricultural background, her insatiable intellectual curiosity, and her goodwill merged to make history. During Jim Crow years, Dooky Chase was the only fine dining restaurant in New Orleans for blacks. It became a nexus for mixed-race civil rights activity, as well as a popular stop for black entertainers and politicians traveling through New Orleans. Mrs. Chase counts Lena Horne and Quincy Jones as friends. She has cooked for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Dooky Chase Restaurant and the surrounding neighborhood flooded badly when the levees broke in 2005. It remained closed for roughly two years, and some people questioned why Mrs. Chase wouldn’t just retire. “Work is like medicine to me,” Mrs. Chase explained to us. She served as the first president of the Southern Foodways Alliance Board of Directors. In 2000, she received the organization’s Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award.
Date of interview:
June 6, 2014
John Pope and Sara Roahen