Scrolling through Twitter a few days ago, I saw the news that Leah Chase, the chef and owner of Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans, had died at the age of 96. Obituaries and tributes from publications nationwide are honoring her life. There’s a lot to honor—she was an important figure not only within the world of food, but also in the civil rights movement, the African American community, and beyond.
I’d like to honor her a little differently, with her own words.
Back in 2014, I was working as an editor at Food & Wine, and one of the stories I oversaw that year was a celebration of culinary icons, with one person selected to represent each decade of age in a life—one person in their teens, someone in their 20s, 30s, all the way up to the 90s. By extension, this group represented different eras of food culture, different trends, and important historical moments playing out nationally and worldwide during their lives.
We selected Leah Chase to be the octogenarian in the group, and I hopped on the phone with her to talk about her restaurant, her cooking, and her life. (The restaurant, if you don’t know, is named for her husband, who predeceased her.) I knew going in that the interview would be condensed into a small write-up with a handful of quotes, but I still talked to her at length, partly to make sure I had a good enough understanding of her story to know what even a brief account should include, and partly because...I could. After all, it’s not every day you get to interview a legend.
But the final, published story ended up with even less text than I’d hoped for. Practically none of the interview made it into print. That’s just a fact of life when you're reporting a story, especially for glossy magazines, where beautiful photos and layouts get as much attention as words, if not more. It broke my heart, though, because her story was so important, and she was just amazing—humble and matter-of-fact about a remarkable life full of remarkable accomplishments.
I’ve sat on this interview for five years now, occasionally going back to reread it for myself. I've always wanted to publish it so that everyone else could read it, too. This feels like the right time to finally do that. I hope you enjoy it, and develop as profound a respect for Leah Chase as I have.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did Dooky Chase's originally open?
It opened in 1941, but they had a little sandwich shop starting in '39. My mother-in-law was making sandwiches, and in '41 she opened the bar and made it a little sit-down restaurant.
How was business in the beginning?
It was popular from the beginning because my father-in-law was very popular. He was a likable guy. He had a numbers running—we call it a lottery—and he sold the lottery. He had a list that came out every night, and if the numbers you played during the day were on it, you could win. You could win $9 for a nickel.
He made money that way, and sold lottery a lot. But he had ulcers so bad, he got sick. He couldn’t go out like he used to. So my mother-in-law would make sandwiches and people would come and play their numbers right in her little shop. That’s how we grew.
My mother-in-law was a progressive woman. She didn’t know anything about restaurants in those days, but she’d give it a try. She borrowed $600 from a brewery; that’s how she opened this restaurant. She was really making money—she was the bank, too. People would come, they’d work, and after they worked they’d come and cash their checks with her. She’d sit with her box in her lap, and she’d cash checks. And then they’d buy oyster rolls to take home.
How did you get started with the restaurant?
You know, I started working as a waitress at a restaurant in the French Quarter in 1941, something like that. That was wartime, and they had no males, so they had to start hiring females. I thought I liked what I was doing, did it until 1945 or '46. When I married Dooky in '46, his mother had the little restaurant. All they were doing was frying chicken, frying oysters. That’s all people would eat, the fried things they didn’t cook at home. It’s hard to make fried foods at home. You have to get out an iron pot, get out the grease. It wasn’t anything you had at home all the time; that’s why people came out to get an oyster sandwich.
You have to understand what restaurants were in the black community then. Blacks didn’t eat out much, because they didn't have places where they could eat. When I came in, I said I wanted to change this and that, whatever I learned from the other side of town. We started putting tablecloths on the tables and got it going.
That took some doing, so I had to get into the kitchen. That was hit or miss. First thing I put on the menu was lobster thermidor, but nobody knew what the heck that was. I had thought the only difference with people is the color of their skin, but that wasn’t true: People have different cultures. Black people weren’t accustomed to cream sauces because they had no place to eat them.
I had to back up and start doing things we were accustomed to at home. Oyster dressing, and the jambalayas. Some of the recipes, well, my mother-in-law was a good cook, so she already had done gumbos and the fried stuff. So you learn. I had to learn. A lot of chefs helped me, and I had to learn from a lot of chefs.
Is an oyster sandwich the same as an oyster po'boy?
Yeah, that’s a po'boy. We used what we called a pan bread. We’d buy a Pullman loaf, and we’d take a big, thick slice out of it. Slice it lengthwise, like 18 inches long. We still do it, it’s still popular, the oyster on pan—"Give me half an oyster on pan, a whole oyster on pan."
I like to put my oysters and pork chops together. That was really good: fry your pork chop, take the bone out, put the oysters on top. I don’t know if I invented it, but I found it pretty good. People used to wrap the oysters in bacon. The flavor of pork and oysters go together very well. Bacon is such a powerful flavor, you have to watch how you use it. I’ll use pork belly, like a fresh bacon, without the powerful smoke flavor.
This reminds me of how it's popular in Chinese cooking to combine pork with seafood.
The Chinese in this area use many things like black people do. Years ago, when the Chinese came to build the railroad, the slaves were already here, so they were like the working slaves. They’d mingle and exchange things. Just like a pork fried rice, we do a jambalaya, and we might do shrimp and pork in the jambalaya, things like that.
It’s about using what’s available to you at the time. And now you have so many people coming from so many cultures, so you have the fusion cooking now, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I might make a chicken soup and add some lemongrass, it gives another flavor.
I've read about the restaurant's role in the civil rights movement. Can you tell me about that?
You see, we had a restaurant here that was so different; it was not just a bar, it was a restaurant and a bar. My father-in-law, he was a stickler for people behaving and dressing well. This was a place where you came and sat down, buy your drink, buy your sandwich to accompany your drink. You certainly weren’t making noises too loud, because he didn’t like it. It was a place where black people felt comfortable coming.
So if the politicians wanted to meet anybody, they had to meet them here if they didn’t want to meet them in church. So that’s what they did. Every politician in the book comes here. This is where they come to meet whoever they’re going to meet.
Then, in the '60s, here comes the new breed of black people. They thought the NAACP was moving too slow, so they were going to move fast. They’d meet here and plan what they were going to do. They’d go out, some would go to jail, some would go all over, sitting in and protesting. They would talk over everything. We still have meetings here to talk over things.
Did that put the restaurant at risk?
I never felt any fear. We’d get ugly letters in the mail sometimes, you never knew who they came from. We had a pipe bomb once thrown through the door from a passing car. But otherwise, never too much. I think why we didn’t have too much of that here was because the police in the neighborhood, in the days before you had black policemen, we would give them a sandwich, just a courtesy while they're working—I’ll treat you to a sandwich. Maybe that’s why we didn’t have too much trouble. It was just a sandwich for their lunch, those people who worked the area.
Sometimes people would come with the Freedom Riders—people like James Baldwin—and the policemen knew who they were and would follow them around. But they never bothered anybody. I’ll never forget, when Jesse Jackson attempted to run for president out here, we had policemen on the roof. I said, listen, if I wanted to kill Jesse Jackson, I would have killed him a long time ago.
The African American art collection at Dooky Chase's is famous. What’s the connection between it and the food?
I started collecting art in 1972 or '73, because I knew a lot of artists. John Scott was living there and doing art. In those days, they had no place to show their work. Galleries didn’t pick up on African American art, and anyway, African Americans weren’t allowed in the museums till the '60s, so we didn’t know anything about it.
I started putting their art up in here. We would swap art for gumbo; poor artists would get paid with gumbo. They would give me art, I’d hang it on the wall at the restaurant. If I took it home, nobody came to my house, so I put it where people could see it. Then people learned from that. They'd say, that looks nice, maybe I’ll try to get that. And it just grew from that.
How big is the collection today?
Maybe about a hundred-some pieces. Well, I haven’t been able to buy any for some time. I can’t afford to buy the art anymore. And the artists have a better way; they don’t have to swap it for gumbo. It’s working.
At what point did you realize you'd become a national figure in the food world?
You know, the truth is, that still puzzles the daylights out of me. I just do what I was taught to do all my life. I came up very, very poor, in a big, big family, and my daddy had no education, literally third or fourth grade. My mother had an eighth-grade education. She was a stickler about educating yourself.
My father was a big stickler on doing for other people, even if we had nothing. We grew vegetables, and we’d share it with the neighborhood. So all my life, I was taught to live by doing for others. I think that’s the thing that brought me up.
I do a lot of charity work. It worked well for me, you know. I don’t have a lot of money to donate to the museums, but if I can give you food so you can raise some money, that’s what I would do. You just get known doing what you have to do every day, and that’s thinking about other people and trying to help them up. I don’t only help people in my community. I do for everybody, white, black, whatever, that need my help. And I guess, I never know—sometimes I wonder, what do you see with me that’s different? I do a lot today, just like I did years ago. I’m going to Washington to receive an award next week, and I’m proud of that. I tell women, you can make a difference.
How did Hurricane Katrina affect your business?
A lot. I lost everything. I lost a whole lot. The only thing I didn’t lose were things that were hanging high. We had five and a half feet of water. Everything went. It all had to go. My dining room had two feet of water. I was able to save the art on the walls. The New York firemen came in to help us; that was a big help. We got the art down off the wall, and I moved it to Baton Rouge, and we didn’t lose a piece.
I had helped raise money for food banks, and they raised money to help buy me new chairs. Everybody helped me get back on my feet. You do things for others, and you never know when you're going to need that person. I try to encourage other people to just do something, for heaven’s sake. You might not have money. I think that’s the biggest cop-out in the world. You don’t give the money, so you give the service. Anything you’ve got, you can share. People will help you if you help them. And then, when you get on your feet, you help somebody else get on their feet. That doesn’t look like a hard job to me.
I tell everybody: Change the way you look at life. You look at it wrong, change the way. Maybe you'll see something better then. Don’t harp on negative things, because there’s always something good. And I try to do that. I’m almost 89 years old...if something blocks my way, I’ve been jumping hurdles all my life.
Any secrets to Creole cooking you can share?
There are no secrets to cooking. You can give all the rules you want, all your recipes, but that person may never become a cook. Give a recipe to someone else, and what they make will never be like yours. Rules and recipes will never make a good cook. Cooking is like religion. You can sit in church all day long, and that won’t make you a saint either.
What’s your favorite thing to eat?
Strangest thing in the world, you'll never believe it. I love, I just truly love meatballs and spaghetti. I just love it. I don’t know why, but I just truly love that. Oh, if I could just go get me meatballs and spaghetti somewhere in some Italian restaurant, I’ll just do that. My all-time favorite general in World War II is General Patton, but I loved him because I loved his strength and go-get-it attitude, rough as he was. I got to meet a man, Colonel [Richard] Stillman, and he said, Leah, I was Patton’s first aide, and Patton’s favorite food was meatballs and spaghetti.
The food circle can bring you around to different things like that. When you meet people, when you connect with other people, that’s just a shot in the arm to me. I had some guests in here, I put some plates—not my regular plates—on the table. A man picked one up, and he said, oh my god, my father made these plates. At first I thought it was dirty or something! A little thing like that can connect you with other people, make you feel good about things. I couldn’t live without people. At my age, that’s what keeps me going. I love people.
It sounds like community has been at the center of Dooky Chase from the beginning.
My vision for this restaurant has been the same since the day I got here. You set a goal, and you try to reach that goal. Sometimes you slip down and you have to get up again. That’s the way it’s been for me and this restaurant. I started working in the French Quarter, and I saw all the fine restaurants there. And I always wanted a nice restaurant, I always wanted to make things nice in my community. Black people had nothing, they had no nice restaurant to go to with a table and a chair.
When integration came, people said, Leah, you should move, black people can go anywhere now, they won’t come to you. I said, you can’t run away from yourself, you are who you are, so you stay where you are and make it work for you. And that’s exactly what I did. I stayed right here. All I wanted was a community where people would come, and I have that. I’m still trying to make it a first-class restaurant in this community. That’s all I ever wanted. I was on that road, and here comes Katrina, bam, and I had to start over again. I’m never going to give up. I’m going to stay on this battlefield till I die.