Editor's Note: This article was orginally published as the cover story for our July 2008 issue.
“I went to Dooky Chase
To get me something to eat
The waitress looked at me and said
‘Ray, you sure look beat.’
Now it’s early in the morning
And I ain’t got nothing but the blues.”
- Ray Charles, “Early in the Morning”
It’s no surprise Ray Charles immortalizes Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, a venerable institution here in New Orleans, in his song “Early in the Morning;” in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Dooky Chase was a popular meeting place for prominent musicians, politicians, and businessmen during the height of segregation and into the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone went there: Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Thurgood Marshall, Lena Horne, JFK, Louis Armstrong, and of course, Ray Charles. Known for its superb Creole fare and collection of original African-American artwork, Dooky Chase’s is the house that Leah Chase built.
Leah Chase, nationally recognized as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” sat down with me on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon at Dooky Chase. The Tremé restaurant, after enduring five feet of water from Hurricane Katrina and over $500,000 in repairs, is as pleasurable as ever - antique satin-lined chairs surround impeccable linen tablecloths, red walls pulse behind dozens of remarkable paintings fit for a museum gallery. I waited happily to speak with Mrs. Chase, taking in the restaurant’s collection of art.
As I sat down, any nervousness on my part immediately vanished. Leah Chase is benevolent and gracious; she was eager to speak about the city’s slow rebuilding process, how grateful she is for the people who have helped her bring back the restaurant, the need to uplift, and how life simply must go on.
With the attitude of the change maker that she is, Mrs. Chase doesn’t stop there. She praised the importance of building energy-efficient, affordable housing (“because we have to conserve energy today, if our young people are going to last,” she says) and mourned the lack of medical assistance and proper schools. Yet, she is ever-optimistic: “We just pick up and go on, you know?” I never once thought that [Dooky Chase] was something I couldn’t pick back up. Every day it got harder, every day, and I am so thankful because I had people to help me.”
However, the history of Dooky Chase reveals another truth: Mrs. Chase’s tenacity, drive, and soul are what have sustained the restaurant for over sixty years. Leah Chase was born in 1923 in Madisonville, Louisiana, and moved to New Orleans after high school. “I went to work in the French Quarter. I got a job as a waitress. I had never seen the inside of a restaurant before, and I loved it. Ever since I saw the inside of that restaurant, and saw how they prepared the food, saw what it was all about, I said, ‘I wish I had this.’ And I learned to cook.” That was the Colonial Restaurant on Chartres Street, back in the 1940’s. in 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, whose parents owned the original Dooky Chase, a small sandwich shop. “The African-American community, they had no restaurants back then like we have today. It was segregation. The other restaurants had nice things like shrimp cocktails, and I wanted all of that. That was my whole ambition, to make a nice restaurant in the African-American community, to serve people - and it worked.”
Mrs. Chase changed the décor and the menu first, serving up some of the most revered Creole cuisine the city had known. Soon after came the art.
“Art, food, music... all those things make you happy. You don’t have to own it; it’s fun to share things. I don’t hold onto worldly things; what good is that for me, at ninety-three. You can earn all the money in the world, but if you haven’t done anything to uplift somebody else or make a difference, you’ve wasted all your time. You have to uplift people.”
Because of Mrs. Chase, the restaurant is known for its superb food, antiques, and African-American art. She has received many awards including the Picayune Loving Cup Award, Southern Foodways Alliance Lifetime Acchievement Award, and the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women.
In light of her incredible accomplishments, Mrs. Chase is modest. “What have I done except cook?” She says. But her achievements are great: she is a civic leader and nationally recognized patron of the arts, and she also serves on the board for the Art Council of New Orleans and the Urban League. “My whole life I’ve worked in this restaurant, because I felt if I could make this work in an African-American community, it would uplift people... and then somebody says, well, let me do the same thing in my block, and uplift a community, and that’s good.”
“I encourage people to please try to get the best education that you have. Then when you make it for yourself, you can help somebody else,” she continues. “See? It’s simple.” And her life’s work is far from over.