When Leah Chase is about to speak, the whole room goes quiet.
Democratic strategist James Carville noted this from his perch at the faraway end of the dining room table at Eatocracy's Secret Supper last Thursday. Ms. Chase, seated at the center, stirred in her seat and Carville, along with the other 14 guests, stopped talking and craned in. When the 88 year old "Queen of Creole Cuisine" has words to share, they tend to be worth hearing.
After graduating high school, Chase secured a job at the Colonial Restaurant on Chartres Street in New Orleans, then later transferred those skills to Dooky Chase - her husband Edgar "Dooky" Chase II's family's restaurant, which had been serving the Treme neighborhood since 1941. As she explained to the assembled guests at the Secret Supper, New Orleans was still segregated and she wanted to give the African American community somewhere special to dine.
At the time, elegant, sit-down restaurants were open only to a white clientele. Chase sought to change that, teaching formal service and elevated Creole cooking to staff in front and back of the house, eventually decorating the walls of the restaurant with pieces from her own estimable collection of drawings and paintings by African American artists.
The restaurant became a nexus for the community - an essential stop for musicians, politicians and actors passing through town - but with laws decreeing that the white and black races were "separate but equal," Dooky Chase was only able to serve a segment of the population.
The Chases decided that a change was long past due. Out-of-town civil rights organizers, black and white, needed somewhere to congregate, so Leah and Edgar gave them one upstairs at the restaurant.
According to Carol Allen's "Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This," one day in 1961, members of the all-white New Orleans police department surrounded the front door of Dooky Chase, demanding to know what was taking place inside. Dooky pulled himself up to his full 5'8" height and declared, "This is a restaurant. We're just feeding our clients."
Asked now about the incident, Leah will just coyly shrug and smile, "I guess I broke the law."
Presidents including George W. Bush and Barack Obama have come to dine at Dooky Chase, and seek out Ms. Chase's counsel. It's a neighborhood institution. When the restaurant was awash under five feet of water, then looted after the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, offers poured in for relocation to other neighborhoods. The Chases stood their ground, setting up camp in a FEMA trailer until they could rebuild. They knew that such a move would signal a lack of faith, and their steadfastness was rewarded.
Fundraising and sweat labor brought the restaurant closer to completion of its $500,000 restoration. Funding from the NAACP and Starbucks, orchestrated by Share Our Strength's Ashley Graham (Ms. Chase made special mention of this on the night of the Secret Supper, knowing Ms. Graham never would) closed the gap. Dooky Chase once again opened its doors to serve its hungry public in 2007.
While Ms. Chase's own children went on to other non-restaurant careers, her grandson Edgar Chase IV - generally known as Dook - graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in 2009, and she's teaching him everything she knows. She laughs, "Now he's studying at Le Cordon Noir."
Previously – Leah Chase's gumbo z'herbes