Chef Leah Chase nourished the civil rights movement with her gumbo

Jennifer Russell

When chef Leah Chase talks, people listen -- people like politicians, activists and leaders. At 90, Chase is a civil rights pioneer, part of the soul of New Orleans and the queen of Creole cuisine. She is still cooking at her Dooky Chase's Restaurant, which is named for her husband. It's a landmark of the Tremé neighborhood, the oldest African-American community in America.

The day we met, she came out of the kitchen with her chef's jacket smeared with flour. She was prepping for the dinner service. As far as age goes, little shows on Ms. Chase's face. (Ms. Chase is what most people call her out of respect.)

Her restaurant is old New Orleans elegance with white tablecloths, good silver and Victorian chairs. But the art is something else. Every wall is hung with African-American works. It's her famous collection, and she has a personal connection to each piece. When we settled in, I asked her how this all started.

Leah Chase: When I came to New Orleans, I came up in the small town across the lake. When I came here to work -- I was 18 in '41 -- I went to work as a waitress in the French Quarter. When I came here, I thought I was going to be a waitress too. But they didn't have anybody in the kitchen. I wanted to change things because in the African-American community, people did not eat in restaurants. The African-Americans did not eat in restaurants -- they didn't.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: This was because of the issues of color?

LC: We couldn't go to the big restaurants. You didn't know what was in them unless you worked in them like I did. So you never went in them. You cooked at home, and the Creoles of color particularly entertained at home.

When I came in I said, "Oh no, we're going to change from fried shrimp, fried oysters and fried fish." That's what they had on the menu. My mother-in-law used to sit down and write the menu by hand; she had about four or five items. I said, "We are going to change this. We are going to make it just like I see on the other side of town."

That was not easy because in the 40s, people were making money. It was wartime, people were making money and she was making money doing what she was doing. But I just thought we should have a nicer restaurant. People didn't understand that because they had never been into any of them.

LRK: How did they react when you had this restaurant?

LC: When I came in, they were using plastic or nothing on the table. You would come and they would serve you a plate, maybe none would match. "Oh no," I said, "we have to change."

Dooky Chase's
The interior of Dooky Chase's (lulun & kame)

LRK: But it did catch on.

LC: It did. Then here comes integration. My clientele here was always I guess what you'd call the crème de la crème -- the finest Creoles of color, the this, the that and the other. They were the ones who were going to go into integrated spaces. They were the ones who were going to be able to go and try out the hotels and that kind of thing.

They said, "Well, I think y'all should move," because we had the project across the street. I couldn't understand that, I couldn't figure that one out. You can't run away from yourself. You are who you are and I could go from here to Timbuktu, it wouldn't change me.

I said, "No, we're going to stay right on this corner, and you make it work." That's what we did, stay right on this corner. Across the street was public housing. Some of the people were great people -- they had older people who had been there since 1941. But then you had some drug addicts, you had all kinds of people over there.

But you know what? They were always good to me. They were always good -- they were like my policemen. They knew, even when we had nothing but the bar, that my father-in-law was a stickler for how people dressed to come out. He wouldn't let you in if you didn't look right, if you talked too loud and all that kind of stuff. They knew that. They wouldn't come in here to get a sandwich to go if they didn't have a shirt and some shoes on.

If they would see somebody coming, they would say, "Ms. Dickens, somebody is going in your dining room. Do you know they're going in your dining room and they have shorts on?" They were like my bodyguards. I miss them very much.

Dooky Chase's
Dooky Chase's (Jennifer Russell)

LRK: I understand that during the whole civil rights movement, this was one of the centers in New Orleans.

LC: We were like everybody else in the black community, working with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] trying to get things to change. Thurgood Marshall, A. P. Tureaud, Dutch Morial -- all those people were big NAACP people.

We were trying to be accepted without hurting anybody. In the 60s here come these young people -- bam -- they would just go in there and break the door down. They were going to take chances, go to jail if they had to. We couldn't understand that, but it worked. A lot of mistakes were made, but sometimes that's what it takes to change a system.

LRK: They did a lot of that here?

LC: They did the planning here over a bowl of gumbo or some fried chicken. Then they would go out, go to jail maybe some of them, and do whatever to make a difference.

LRK: You mentioned nourishing the integration movement with your gumbo. That dish is evidently pretty famous.

LC: Yes, it is. It's typical of Creoles of color. They do nothing, nothing -- they don't have any festive dinners unless you start with gumbo. You must start that dinner with gumbo. I don't care what else you have after it.

If it's Christmas, if it's Thanksgiving, you may get to the table with your family at noon. You know what you have at noon? You have this big bowl of gumbo. Maybe you'll have two bowls of gumbo. Always with some wine -- you never have gumbo without wine. Then you'd move away from the table, you'd have drinks and you'd talk. Then you'd go back to the table at about 2 p.m. and have the rest of your dinner, which could be every and anything. In different seasons you'd have everything. Then there you'd stay until you got tired.

LRK: You've been cooking all of your life -- you're still cooking now -- but you've done so much else. You're famous for your involvement in the arts. You're famous for your involvement in the community. What's really important to you now? Is there one thing you could pick out?

LC: Living. I love living. You can live, or you can exist. I hate when people just exist. They get up in the morning, they brush their teeth, they wash their face, they eat a breakfast. They go on, they come back home and the next day the same thing. I call that existing.

To live is something else. You have to be around people. You have to do something every day for somebody else. That's what I call living, and I love living. That's what keeps me going. I love people, I love living. I like what I do because everybody has to eat. You can get to anybody's heart over a bowl of gumbo. Over some good food, you can do that.

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