It’s 1959. My father has just graduated from law school. He celebrates at Dooky Chase’s restaurant with my mother and my grandparents. A few tables away sits Nils Douglas, my father’s future law partner and the only other black graduate of Loyola University’s law school that year.
Where else were they to go? When America was segregated, there was only one place for black New Orleanians to eat and have their accomplishments tacitly shared and seconded by the community of diners. Only one place where that feeling of specialness would be echoed by the relative richness of the restaurant’s decor. Whether you were the star player on a Little League baseball team or an anxious boyfriend planning to pop the question, if you were black and in New Orleans, you went to Dooky Chase’s.
With chef Leah Chase’s death on June 1, New Orleans and the rest of the nation have been reminded of her great food and all the other things for which she stood. Her death marks the passing of an era, true. But she lived to be 96, so in fact her death marks the passing of several eras.
In 1978, when the late Rudy Lombard published “Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets,” he was chronicling an age when almost all the cooks and a great many of the chefs in New Orleans restaurants were of African descent. That is less true now, but in those days, the range of careers available to black people was narrow. The accolades received by chefs of any race were mostly private compliments from appreciative diners. The pay was low, the word hard and the dream of becoming a rich celebrity chef unheard of.
The dream of black cooks and chefs was for their children to get educations and white-collar jobs.
In her nearly 50 years at New Orleans’ Bon Ton Cafe, Dot Hall has worked her way up from the salad station to fry cook to head cook. Much to their mother’s delight, her three daughters all work in health care.
“Working in a restaurant can be hard work,” she told me in an interview in 2012. Even when my kids were in school, I never allowed them to come here and work. No summer work, no nothing. A lot of people that are in the restaurant business want their kids to get this experience, but I wasn’t one that wanted that.”
Most of the children of Chase and her late husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, also eschewed the professional kitchen for careers in education.
Technology too, has changed the nature of our relationship with restaurants.
Now that everyone has a car, we dart between neighborhoods in search of the best food with little regard for the distance, and any good neighborhood restaurant is soon overrun with pilgrims eager to discover it before anyone else.
While Dooky Chase’s dining room was always meant to have an air of exclusivity, its takeout window served hot sausage sandwiches and fried oysters on pan bread to some of the toughest critics in New Orleans: the people of the Tremé neighborhood. For most of its history, Dooky Chase’s was directly across the street from the Lafitte public housing development, and Chase loved hearing the compliments of those neighbors, people who often called her “Miss Dooky.” That old takeout window was the sort of tucked-away neighborhood joint of which food bloggers now dream.
Much like Edna Lewis, who dazzled Brooklyn with the tastes and techniques she learned in Freetown, Virginia, Chase never failed to remind folks that she learned about Creole cuisine not in New Orleans but across Lake Pontchartrain in Madisonville. The first dish she introduced to a restaurant menu was Creole wieners and spaghetti, which she fixed at her one of her first jobs as a teenage cook at the old Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter.
Chase also embodied a natural dignity of generosity of spirit that seems out of fashion in this “What’s in it for me?” era. Her fame was renewed when she chastised President Barack Obama for putting hot sauce in her gumbo before he had even tasted it.
What is less well known is her friendship with President George W. Bush. She made breakfast for him once when he visited the city after he had left office. Fried quail and grits. I remember the menu to this day because I still envy the president that pleasure.
For Chase, a good meal shared by adversaries could pave the road toward agreement and compromise.
A full accounting of all that we have lost with her passing would take a lifetime and not be especially productive. In her bones, Chase was an optimist, and her faith in the future was probably as central to her longevity as her rich Creole diet.
“To be a woman, you have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog,” she often quipped. But she was happy to note that things had improved in her long lifetime, at least to the extent that women in general and black women in particular had taken major steps toward equality. Mashama Bailey and Dolester Miles, two black women who are chefs, have had their work recognized in recent years by the James Beard Foundation.
You always saw a Who’s Who of black New Orleans in Dooky Chase’s, especially at lunchtime on a Friday. But these days the prominence of these black bankers, lawyers and chief executives eclipses that of the generations that preceded them. Moreover, these people make the affirmative decision to dine at this historic restaurant even though racism no longer bars them from other options.
The diners are being cooked for and served by the Leah and Dooky Chase’s children and grandchildren, who have returned to work in the restaurant in recent years, determined to extend the tradition. On the nights since Chase died, the traditional, impromptu gathering of musicians, mourners and well wishers has popped up outside the restaurant to pay tribute to this giant of the community.
In the dark days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and the federal levee failures allowed floodwaters to inundate Dooky Chase’s, there were doubts about whether that restaurant, those musicians or that community would ever return, let alone recover. But recover it did. “Soul is waterproof,” the bumper stickers proclaimed as the city wrung the water from itself.
The sounds of drums and feet and instruments and voices outside Dooky Chase’s on recent nights make clear how wrong the doubters were about the post-Katrina future of New Orleans. As the community rebuilt itself, it also pulled together to help the Chase family return to its rightful place at the restaurant. Chefs, electrical engineers, diners and philanthropists all played parts, leading the chef to quip that she couldn’t die – because she owed too much to too many people.
But the city of New Orleans did its own accounting. Chase’s service on boards, her donations of food, her service as one of the city’s greatest ambassadors and her role as filler of stomachs and lifter of our spirits was judged to have been far more valuable than anything she might have owed to any of us.
Perhaps in her passing, she finally realized this herself. Finally realized that this city, which she had helped raised, was prepared for life without one of its greatest matriarchs.
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Lolis Eric Elie is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker and a former columnist and reporter for The Times-Picayune.