24: “The Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Lange, was born in 1923, delivered by her maternal grandmother, a New Orleans midwife. She grew up in Madisonville, then a small town on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. She returned to New Orleans when she was 13, and lived with an aunt while attending St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic high school. Her father was a staunch Catholic; “more Catholic than the Pope,” she once said.
Leah graduated at 16, and went back to Madisonville. Two years later, she returned to New Orleans and worked at a variety of jobs, including managing boxers and working for a local bookie. But it was a stint as a waitress at the Colonial Restaurant that gave her a glimpse into her future. This was back during segregation, and she thought how nice it would be if black folks could have a good sit-down restaurant of their own.
Her opportunity came in 1946, when she was 23. She eloped with an 18-year old aspiring jazz musician, Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr. In 1941, Edgar’s parents had opened a small shop, Dooky Chase’s, that sold lottery tickets and po’boy sandwiches. It evolved into a sandwich shop and liquor store. Meanwhile, Edgar and Leah had four kids in fairly rapid order.
Edgar and Leah Chase
Once the kids were in school, Leah offered to work in the sandwich shop. She went to work in the kitchen, and gradually added signature Creole dishes to the menu. She also urged the Chases to upgrade the place into a sit-down restaurant. Leah and her mother-in-law had different tastes in decor, but eventually, Leah prevailed.
Over the years, Dooky Chase’s became a favorite location for celebrities from Duke Ellington to President Obama, as well as to George W. Bush, who once brought along the Canadian PM and Mexican President for a private breakfast—
Leah’s dishes are Creole, but as she explains it, other places such as the Commander’s Palace reflect Creole dishes with Spanish and French influences, while hers reflect African touches. In a 2011 interview, she said: “People want to know, “What is Creole?”… So I tell ‘em, “Don’t try to.” We are as far south as you can get, without jumping off into the Gulf. We don’t cook “southern food.” We’re just a bunch of weirdoes all around. We cook what we want, and we cook different.”
But Leah’s importance extends beyond Creole cuisine alone. In the 1960s, Edgar and Leah allowed black and white civil rights leaders to use Dooky Chase’s as a safe place for meetings. Under Jim Crow, this was illegal, but the Chases had such a reputation that the police would leave them alone. In her later years, she summed it up this way: “We changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo.” Trust me, a blog named Food Tells a Story loves hearing that!
1960: Ruby Bridges leads the integration of New Orleans’ elementary schools
Leah is also known for her support of the arts. Dooky Chase’s has a premier collection of African American art. Some have commented that the restaurant feels more like an art gallery that serves food.
It seems as though Leah has received every possible award for her cooking, civil rights leadership, and community work. This year, on May 2, Leah will receive a James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. Leah has done a lot of interviews, and it’s worth your time to watch some on YouTube. This little 2014 clip from ABC News makes a good introduction to her story.
The restaurant was immortalized in Ray Charles’ 1961 single, “Early in the Morning.” Charles, who dined there frequently, loved their red beans & rice and fried chicken. The verse goes: “I went to Dooky Chase / To get me something to eat. / The waitress looked at me and said, / ‘Ray, you sure look beat.'”
Oh, and on top of all the other accolades and honors, Tiana from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) was modeled on Leah Chase.
Leah celebrated her 93rd birthday in January, and is still working. With the help of a walker, she goes back and forth between the dining room and kitchen, greeting customers, and checking on the chicken. In fact, in 2014, the Times-Picayune named Dooky Chase’s fried chicken as the best in the city.