Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Leah Chase - One Bowl of Gumbo at a Time

Chef Leah Chase in her kitchen at Dooky Chase Restaurant, New Orleans, LA
Photo by Cheryl Gerber NOLA 
One of the most iconic dishes from New Orleans, Louisiana representing Creole cuisine is seafood gumbo.  With the mighty Mississippi river going through the heart of New Orleans pushing water straight into the Gulf of Mexico, it creates an array of treasures from the sea which define much of New Orleans Creole and Cajun cuisine.  

Just as iconic is a woman who doesn’t need much of an introduction.  She’s the undisputed Queen of Creole that might as well have the title of Queen of Hearts.  Born in Madisonville, Louisiana, she possesses magical culinary skills and a big heart with which for over seven decades, has been cooking for many of the Civil Rights leaders, the rich and famous, musicians, poets, novelists, visitors, American presidents, world diplomats, blacks and whites, and anyone with an appetite for good, home-cooked, creole food in her legendary restaurant Dooky Chase.   

Mrs. Leah Chase came into the business when she married jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II.  His parents owned a corner stand that sold lottery tickets and homemade po’boy sandwiches.  Mrs. Chase worked in the kitchen during the 1950’s, and over time, Leah and Dooky took over the stand and converted it into a restaurant establishment.  Leah presided over the kitchen and was the visionary of home-cooked creole food.  She was not formally trained yet her hospitality only matched the service. She quietly served at a time when tensions in the south were brutal and the Jim Crow laws became the canon for segregation, discrimination, and cruelty.  

At Dooky Chase’s, one bowl of gumbo at a time, Mrs. Chase fed the hungry for equality, the hungry for the right to vote, the hungry for a right to live and raise families in a society of equal justice for all.  She fed the Civil Rights leaders in the 1960’s that would front the fight to end racial injustices and violence.  Her restaurant became the meeting place where strategies would be planned by Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders, and student activists.  Dooky Chase was the only place where the black communities in New Orleans could meet despite the “secret meetings” being illegal.  Quietly, congregated to take a stand against the oppressors, gumbo and fried chicken became the nourishment that would become the Civil Rights Movement.  

Much of the celebrating in New Orleans revolves around food.  Therefore, New Orleans was the destination for my birthday in November.  I had the honor of celebrating with Mrs. Leah Chase and my loved ones.  The gumbo she made that day was extra special with a  generous serving of blue crabs and gulf shrimp.  The heartiness of the stew is the story of the triumph to make the world a better place.  Her voice and loving heart touch you in a way that will forever prompt you to aspire to become a better person.

Of course, we talked about food and how it shapes us today.  Food creates memories and eventually becomes the tool of communication between cultures and races.  Best of all food becomes a tool for peace.  Because you can’t sit down for peace talks without good food.  Mrs. Chase is a defender of women’s rights.  We talked about what it means to be a woman and a part of the system today where women have come a long way in human rights.  And speaking of culture, she mentioned the Oaxacan mole negro, and how much she loves the Mexican indigenous foods and the deep south tamales of Veracruz.  She loved meeting Vijay and told him to bring her a plate of traditional Andhra Indian food on our next visit.  So I made a promise to return for another bowl of her creole seafood gumbo.   
Chef Leah Chase & Leticia Alaniz
Photo by Vijay Marrivada

- “You think creole gumbo is special?  Food is precious and we must treat it like that.  And I love a person that loves food and comes from so far away to visit me to try my food.  I know you and I have a connection thru food so that makes you special."   

Leah Chase tells it like it is.  I will forever treasure her words which did make me feel very special in her kitchen in New Orleans. 

Mrs. Leah Chase has been honored with numerous awards and accolades:

James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award (2016)
NOLA Award Best Fried Chicken (2014)
James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage (2010)
Southern Foodways Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award (2000)
Honorary Degree Tulane University
Honorary Degree Loyola University New Orleans
Honorary Degree Johnson & Wales University
Times-Picayune Loving Cup Award (1997)
Honorary Degree Our Lady of Holy Cross College
Honorary Degree Madonna College  

Among her other projects are a televised cooking show devoted to Creole cooking, and is the author of several cookbooks:

  • The Dooky Chase Cookbook (1990) 
  • And I Still Cook (2003)
  • Down Home Healthy : Family Recipes of Black American Chefs (1994)

Written by Leticia Alaniz
© 2018

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