Dooky Chase's Restaurant
2301 Orleans Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70119
“We had people coming and coming in until
1984, when we bought the whole block up and stretched out there…If
the community is going down, it's my job to pick it up. I have
the only thing here that's going to pick up this neighborhood.
So I better fix up my place and do this. So that's what we did,
and in 1984 we made it grow to what we did.” – Leah Chase
After fighting adversity in the wake of the Hurricane
Katrina levee breeches, Leah Chase will soon reopen Dooky Chase,
her family restaurant in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.
That restaurant has been her life’s work.
In 1945, she met musician Edgar "Dooky"
Chase II, whose parents owned the restaurant. After the two married,
and when their children were old enough to attend school, Leah
Chase began working at the restaurant three days a week, first
as a hostess, later as a chef.
In the years that followed she has transformed Dooky
Chase into a landmark of New Orleans cookery, dishing peerless
gumbo and other Creole delicacies. Along the way, she has befriended
such luminaries as Justice Thurgood Marshall and musician Ray
Leah Chase is widely known for maintaining the Gumbo
Z’Herbes or Green Gumbo tradition. This gumbo variation
is usually served on Holy Thursday, which is the day before Good
Friday. Her Creole Gumbo is featured on our recipe page.
* The interview that follows was originally
recorded in 2004 for the SFA’s
Founders’ Oral History Project. Mrs. Chase has been
busy rebuilding her restaurant, since Hurricane Katrina, and we
did not want to distract her from those efforts. Look for a new
interview to appear here in the future.
to this 2-minute audio clip of Leah Chase talking about making connections through food, particularly
gumbo. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.]
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview
that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript
in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Leah Chase, Chef/Owner, Dooky Chase’s
Restaurant – New Orleans, LA
Interviewer: April Grayson, Friend of the SFA
Location: University of Mississippi – Oxford, MS
Date: October 9, 2004
April Grayson: So you are from New Orleans [originally]?
Leah Chase: Yes.
And I know New Orleans has its own kind of culture in a way…But
do you still consider yourself a Southerner as well as someone
from New Orleans?
Well, geographically we have to consider ourselves a Southerner.
[Laughs] That—we're as far as South as you're going to go
without dumping off in the Gulf. But our culture is so different
than, for instance, Mississippi, Alabama, and those things. It's
a little different. So I tell people coming from the East or the
North, when you come down, you get two different cultures. You
stop off in Mississippi, you stop off in Alabama, you get true
Southern culture; you come as far as Baton Rouge in Louisiana,
you're getting Southern culture. But when you get below Baton
Rouge, then you get another whole thing to deal with. Kind of
weird but it's another whole thing. I think it's because our mixture
of cultures there: the French, the Spanish, the Africans. Look
at this big mixture, you see; so you get a little—and
I guess it came through the food. The Africans brought what they
knew, the Spanish brought what they knew, the French brought what
they knew; so it's just a mixture of things there. And I guess
that's where the Creoles came in, you know, with all this mixture
and the—and the mixture of food is unbelievable and—and
made us quite different than—than anybody else. [Laughs]
So do you mind telling me the date and place of your birth?
I was born in New Orleans, January 6th, 1923. I—my mother
was from New Orleans. My father was from a small town across the
lake from New Orleans in Madisonville, and that's where I came
up until I went to high school. Then there was no high school
in this small town. There was segregation; so there wasn't no
high school for blacks other than a public high school. I don't
think they had much of that. So we were staunch Catholics, you
know, and people are in that area, so my daddy insisted that we
go to Catholic schools and we were—I was educated by the
Sisters of the Holy Family and they—they taught me in Madisonville,
and then they taught me in high school when I came to New Orleans.
And that was as far as I could get was high school, and I was
only 16 years old when I graduated from high school. So they had
a problem there, you know. In those days you couldn't get a job
unless you were 18—19 years old; so I had to do housework.
And all these things these people talk about today about being
a maid, if you will, or a house worker or a cook, I did all of
that. I was fortunate enough to work for people that were kind
to me, you know. I think because it was a small town—it
was a very small town—and everybody knew one another. The
blacks and whites did not mingle, but at least they knew one another.
The richest people in town were here, and we were the poorest
people, I guess, and we were here, so we knew one another. So
that made life, I think, easier. But I enjoyed my work; I learned.
I look at life, honey, and everything you do should
be a learning experience. I learned a lot of things working for
this lady in her—in a little boarding house from cleaning
up a house. You learn about people and there's nothing—no
product more important than human beings. I don't care who they
are; there's nothing in the world more important than human beings.
And you learn about those people. You take some things that you
can use, and then things you think you can't use or your mother
wouldn't allow you to use, you don't take. And that's how you
grow and that's how things should be with people's lives. That's
what I'm trying to tell young people today. They're moving and
they're moving good, and I'm proud of those who can move. But
are you stopping to help somebody else? Are you stopping to see
how you can make another person feel his worth?
Now, you see, people I came in contact with—I
was, I guess, fortunate. Even now at 82 years old I run into people
that make me feel like I'm worth something. And I don't care who
they are; I like people to make you feel that way and you can
work on. This is crazy. You don't know how—you're starting
to think that you don't make somebody else feel good; they're
not going to do anything. So you want people to move; you want
to build your country; you want to build your city—make
everybody move; make them feel good, and they'll keep you going.
So those are the things I learned a lot in life and to look at
people and take what you can from them. Nobody becomes—people
will say, “Well Leah, who was your role model?” And
I had parents that were good parents; they were poor. I'm educated.
My father had on only about a third or fourth grade and my mother
had only seventh grade, but they were good parents and they taught
you how to take one step more, you know. You have to be—go
a little bit higher. Then when you got that way and you got children
they were still telling you, “Now you have to make your
children go a little higher. You have to build.” And they
had enough common sense to know that. They had enough common sense
to tell you how to get along with other people. Our motto in living—my
daddy always told us—he always
said, “Don't worry.” And he used to fuss at my mother
because, you know, women worry. “Don't worry; it doesn't
do you any good.” He said, “You get up in the morning
and you pray and you work and you do for others; that's all.”
That's the three rules we lived by at my house. We had to do that.
We were so poor. But we had to do something for others, and those
are the things that get you along in life. So it really got me
along, and I'm still doing it. So it—it must work.
And the simplest things in life you can do. Now
you have to teach children how to be educated and they have to
do that and—because even if you're going to be a cook, a
chef or whatever—a cook, you have to be certified today
to advance and to grow. So you go to school and you learn those
things and you learn how to do it. You learn from everybody; you
take a little bit from everybody and that way—and that's
what I have done. So nobody becomes—no one person becomes
my role model. I may look at these people across the street from
me and I look at them and I said, “You know look at that;
that's pretty smart what they're doing. I can do that. I can learn
to do that.” And then everybody becomes your role model
because you take what's good from everybody. You take whatever
good they have, you take it and you—you move on it, and
that becomes your role model. And I think people should do that—pay
more attention to other people. You might think a person has nothing
to offer, the way he looks. He might look—but if you talk
to him long enough, you will find that he can offer you something.
Can you tell me the history of [Dooky Chase’s Restaurant]
and how you think you have made an impact on your community there?
You know that restaurant started as a little shop across the street.
My mother-in-law—my father-in-law was sick and he had ulcers
for any number of years until he died really, and he could not
really go out to work, so my mother-in-law stayed there and you
see—they sold what you call lottery, but it's a different
ballgame than what the lottery is today. So—and she was
able to sit there and sell her lottery, and he could sit there
and sell it. And then she would sell sandwiches, you know. And
my mother-in-law was an interesting woman—stubborn as a
blue-nosed mule, but really a hard-working woman, and she was
a good money manager. I wish I could be that way like she was.
She was a good money manager, and she could really do things,
you know. So she started that little sandwich shop; she was a
good cook. She could cook and make sandwiches and it just grew.
So when it grew she moved across the street. She lived—it
was what we called a double house in New Orleans. You know, we
had the double shotgun. She lived on one side, and then the little
restaurant and bar was on this side. And they were—my father-in-law—very
popular, you know. He was out a lot, and he was
popular. Everybody loved him. Everybody loved my mother-in-law
because she was a community person. I could see her now; Thanksgiving
and Christmas, she would sit in what we'd call the Neutral Ground
with her sacks of apples and she would get—the children
would come. Well you can't do that today because traffic is so
heavy, and you just can't do that. But I thought that was so nice;
she did that every time. She would sit there and she would give
out apples and oranges to the neighbors and she would do—befriend
the neighbors wherever she could. So that's how that started.
So when I came in—in [nineteen]'46 I came
from working in the French Quarter, so I knew what restaurants
were all about. Where in the black community it was segregation,
so they did not know in the black community really what real restaurants
were about. They had never been in one; they couldn't go. It was
only the people like me who worked in them who knew this is what
you do; this is how you set this table, and this is how you do.
And black people did not even want to eat in restaurants at first
because they couldn't go into them. And it was too funny—how
your parents shield you without telling you, you know, these—these
people are white and they don't like you, or these people are
white and they don't want you there. They never told you that;
they didn't ever say that to you.
You would be passing and maybe they would say—you
would say, “Oh, I'm thirsty or I want this.” “Oh,”
they'd say, “No, you—don't do that; wait until you
get home because you see everybody drinks out of that. You don't
want to drink out of that. [Laughs] It's not clean.” So
you got that mentality—hey, everything in the restaurant
is not clean; I don't want to go there. So that I had to work
that out of the system too, you know, because, “Oh no, they're
not going to do that.” If you got to the movies and you
saw the people downstairs, you know, and you couldn't go down
there, you wanted to know why you couldn't go in that pretty seat.
“Oh no, don't you see better up here is why—you can
see better up here.” And we—you know in my day we
just believed all that junk; we didn't even ask any questions.
But you know—and my mother-in-law started there and that
was some doings because she started doing just—because you
see black people ate and cooked in their homes. As I said, you
know they would never eat out; they cooked in their homes. So
when they would come to her, it would be to get a—to get
a sandwich and a beer or something. Mostly a beer, you know. They
would come for a beer, so to accompany their beer, they would
eat. So that's how it went you know; they would buy a sandwich,
and then she'd start frying chicken and that kind of thing. So—and
it grew. So when I came in there, I said we have to change because
by that time the black people were becoming attorneys and things,
and you had a few that would work and had lunchtime, so the first
thing I did was put on a lunch, you know. And it was too funny
because here I'm going to come in here to this building where
my mother-in-law was making money—she was making money.
In [nineteen]'45 everybody was making money, you know, so she
could say, “This little crazy girl coming in here and she's
going to tell me what to do; I'm sitting here making money, you
know.” [Laughs] But I knew I wanted to change; I thought
in the black community we should have everything that the whites
had and I saw—and I still see no reason why we can't have
it. We just have to be working on it and just—you know just
work at that, just be yourself and work at that.
And in my case I think it's proven to be good. I—I
hope so anyway. But that's how we started there and I started
putting things on. It was too funny because—this is so stupid
and how you can be so young and naïve—I came from the
white restaurant I told you, and one thing they used to serve
was Lobster Thermadore. So [I figured] that's what I'm going to
change, too. I'm going to put that out, and I'm going to serve
Lobster Thermadore, and I did. I said, “There's no difference
in people besides—they're just different—their color
of their skin; that's all. They eat the same; they—.”
That was so stupid and naive. You have different tastes. You have
different cultures. You have a different background. And what's
wrong with that? Nothing. You know, you just do that. So that,
too, taught me you are you; you are you, you know. It's just—we're
just different in our cultures and our upbringing and that's—that's
good, I think. [Laughs] So I learned that—well, the people
say, “What in the world is this? She's going to ruin everything
Emily and Dooky built.” Yeah, that's what they said about
me, you know. “She's coming in there and she's just going
to ruin everything they've built. They have worked hard and they've
built it and she's coming in to ruin it.” [Laughs] So I
had to work.
Did the restaurant have the same name at that time?
It's the same name. See, my father-in-law was such a public figure
and—and he was popular so the name worked. And then when
my husband came along he had a big band, so that worked. So that
put the name further out, you see. He was on the road with a big
band, with the Dooky Chase Band, so everything gelled together
there. So you don't get rid of what works for you, even though
my mother-in-law was the worker. And she was Emily [Laughs]. It
should have been Emily, but Emily wasn't the name that they would
remember. They would remember Dooky, who they saw. He loved to
parade. It was strange with him. He was a kind of easy-going man,
but he loved to parade. He loved to parade, and he belonged to
an organization called the Square Deal. And they would put on
these beautiful shirts; he would have them made and where this
banner and this dove on their shoulder and carry their umbrella
and parade. [Laughs] He loved that; so he was a pretty popular
guy out there. And my mother-in-law just worked. She loved him
to death and no matter what he did, poor thing—he liked
to gamble and couldn't gamble, and she would acquire this money
and the first thing you know, he would lose it. She wouldn't get—I
was just amazed. She would never get angry at him for doing that.
She would just start working again. [Laughs] But that's how they
started there, and I knew we had to grew—we had to grow.
And when we remodeled, she moved out of her side and—and
we had that for a dining room. And that was much better than—then
we had people coming and coming in until 1984, when we bought
the whole block up and stretched out there. We were pretty tight
in—in that little area and I couldn't—I hate people
waiting in line for food. I hate it. I don't like it. I don't
like people waiting in line for food. I like to seat them. So
they would wait on the bar, and then I'd have to go in there with
a bottle of wine and try to give everybody a glass of wine because
you waited for this food, you know.
Well now we have come past that. We can seat 90—94
people in the main dining room—50 in one end and about 30
in another one—but you always have problems. Now you have
service problems. The help isn't there like it used to be, and
nothing isn't there, so you just keep going. And there's things
like this—like I belong to groups like this, like Southern
Foodways [Alliance] and all of these things that make me grow.
I learn when I come here; I learn from everybody. And unlike some
of what these people are talking about—and this woman I'm
with her, Carol Allen, she can attest to the things that I'm telling
When we stayed—after integration on this corner
which is—had moved—one time the neighborhoods were
mixed in New Orleans. All mixed, the Italians had a grocery on
the corner, and they lived there and some whites lived down the
street; it was pretty well mixed. Well I don't know if—if
race had anything probably to move them out. I think economy,
a better way, finding a better space—maybe the city was
growing out and—and they were getting older and the children
said, “Well I can't believe you're here alone, so we're
going to take you with us,” and now the space opened. So
the thing moves out, and you're all black again. But—and
I still—they said, “Leah, you're going to have to
move this restaurant, or you're not going to make work here. It's
not going to work here.” Even my husband, “It's not
going to work here. He—nobody will come. The whites certain
won't come, nobody will come.” So I said, “Nope; I
don't think so. We don't owe anybody anything, and this is our
building, and I am what I am. This is the people I know. I'm black;
my community is black. I can't be anybody else, so why should
I move my space somewhere else?” My job there—if the
community is going down, it's my job to pick it up. I have the
only thing here that's going to pick up this neighborhood. So
I better fix up my place and do this. So that's what we did, and
in 1984 we made it grow to what we did.
The thing about it, we—I—now I'm a stickler
for tablecloths. I love tablecloths. Well at first that wasn't
heard of in—in black restaurants. You just didn't hear of
that in black restaurants. We lost an old man in the community,
Ellis Marsalis, the Marsalis people—their father. I remember
years ago he had a little motel, and the little restaurant in
his motel in the early '40s and he had white tablecloths. I always
told that old man, “I copied off of you because I wanted
to be like you. I wanted to have what you have.” Well, he
was getting older and couldn't make it work, so you know—and
his children didn't—were not interested. They—Ellis
was into music. His daughter was into teaching or whatever, so
it didn't work there for him, but he really gave me an inspiration
to—to make mine work and to do what I have to do. So we
go with the tablecloths and that's another thing.
Look, when I first started setting up the tables
you know they said, “Nobody — nobody is going to eat
this with this fork that's sitting here, and nobody is going to
eat that and the—,” you know they used to put the
ketchup and the hot stuff out. “No, I don't want any ketchup
and hot stuff on this table. Get it off; no.” And then we're
going to do what we have to do; so I had to struggle to get it
going. So, you know, you get the ups and downs and you keep—you
get a new breed now coming in [and they] don't know where you're
coming from, don't understand about service. Don't understand
a bit about service. And today I could serve people all day and
all night and be happy as a lark. To me, you meet people; you
get to know them; you get to know what they like; you—you
get to serve them and you can see happy faces if you make somebody
happy or when you serve them nice and that's—that's all
I know about. So service for me will be important until the day
I die. I'm sorry if it looks like a maid or if it looks like this.
I am sorry; that's my life.
Now then, Jessica Harris and Carol [Allen] can tell
you that people come from all around; they come from all over
the country. I've done Japanese television. I've done German television.
I've done everything that—and people will come in that community.
They will come because I am me and they—they're going to
come to see what I have to offer and I'm going to try to just
do it the best I can. And people will come if you just invite
them, and when they get there you just make them feel good. They
will come and they come in that totally black community. Sometimes
people say, “Don't go there because the project is over
there, and that's not a good neighborhood.” So people who
know say, “That's the best neighborhood you can go into.”
Because you know why? I don't have one security guard, and I don't
have one bar or iron rails—nowhere. I don't believe in bars
because I don't like putting myself in jail. But my protection
is my neighbors. Now they would not let anybody do anything there
at all. Not at all. They would say, “Miss Dooky, you know
what I saw? I saw somebody crossing your line. I saw somebody
doing this.” No; so that's my security—my neighbors.
Uh-hmm, I think it's wonderful. I think they're wonderful. They
have all kind of problems, and they need all kinds of help; so
you help where you can, and they will, in turn, help you. They
will help you. They will not mark all over the buildings because
they said, “No, we can't do that here because people come
from all over to Dooky's, and they'll see all this writing on
the wall. We don't want that.” So you see, that's good qualities.
I don't care how bad you are, you know you have good—good
people that you can talk to, and all you have to do is talk to
them and make them feel good and that's it.
So tell me about the food.
Now the food as I said when I started with this—now I can
go back to my Lobster Thermadore, you see, because it's integrated,
and they have had an opportunity to go in other restaurants. That's
why those things are good for learning. So you learn what they
eat and you try that and you come back, and now you know how to
eat a medium-rare steak. Before you could say, “Oh my God,
we can't eat this meat.” They would go, you know, and they
would come back. And they would go to banquets at the hotel, and
they would come back. And I said, “Well you just ate. Oh
no, we couldn't eat that rare meat they served us over there.”
I said, “Why didn't you tell them you don't like it rare,
you know? Just tell them what you don't like.” [Laughs]
“No.” So now we have learned, and that is the good
thing about integration—most important thing is not that
I can sit next to you at a movie, but I have learned. I have learned
some of your culture. I've learned to appreciate that. And then
you learn mine, and that's what the world is all about—learning
one another and learning to live with one another. We're going
to have to do that not only in our own country; we're going to
have to cross those waters
and that's how we're going to learn with other people—learn
about their cultures, learn that we can't make them be everything
we are. We have to learn to let them live the way they can live
and help them to live the way they can live. And it sounds easy,
but I guess it's pretty hard to do. I know we can't fight wars
anymore. I know that—that is not the way to go.
I—I have a picture of a man that I truly loved
from day one. [I] never got to meet him in my life. He was General
Patton—I loved General Patton. I've got every book on Patton
there is. I—he was a go-getter and he would set a goal,
and he would beat the world down to reach that goal. Well you
can't do that today; you've got to go about it different than
that today. You can't go about beating the world down to get what
you need or to get what you think ought to be done. You have to
talk a little bit, and you have to work it and try to understand
people. Maybe you'll never understand them, but at least try to
live with them. And those are things that—food is the most
important thing. You know, I went to sign books in Paris last
year, and my daughter said, “Listen; don't say anything
political. You're not to speak about politics at all.” Because
then it was thing going on with Saddam and blah-blah-blah. “Don't
say anything political, okay.”
The first question out of the crowd, which Carol
had a good crowd of people there; it was a nice crowd at that
book signing. The man asked me, “If you had to talk to Bush
and Chirac,” who is the President over—over there
in Paris, “what—what would you tell them?” [Laughs]
I said, “They just told me don't say anything political,
but I will try. I would to say to them, you know, I feel like
in my restaurant we really changed the course of America because
I've fed civil rights workers when they would come in and they
would have to plan what the next step they were going to move.
They came to the restaurant, and we made this big pot of gumbo.
We cooked; they ate; they planned, then they went on. I said I
would tell Mr. Bush and Mr. Chirac, Mr. Saddam—come and
have a bowl of gumbo. Talk it over a bowl of gumbo. Let's talk.”
[Laughs] So a lot of things can be done over food. You learn about
people with food; it’s a pleasing thing. So you’re
going to have to do that simple thing, you know—learn about
their food. You can do it. I can take anybody’s food and
Creole-ize it and make it mine, you know. And you make people’s
food yours whether it’s Southern food, Creole food, whatever.
You can take it, and you can do what you want with it. But most
of all you can make people happy with it. That to me is most thing—just
make them happy with it.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form,
please click here.
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