New Orleans, La.–Hunched over a container of yams, she wields a knife almost artfully, peeling away the skin and slicing a yam in bitable parts. No, Mrs. Leah Chase the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” is not on k.p.; she’s doing what she loves doing and has been doing for most of her 90 years—preparing meals for hungry diners.
One customer, eager to meet her, is escorted to the kitchen and immediately engages her in conversation, telling her how delicious and fresh her yams are. “All my food is fresh,” she says, rising from her stool. “The fruit, the vegetables, everything here is fresh and grown locally.”
She is a bit unsteady as she assumes an upright position and continues her dialogue about the kitchen, where since the 1950s she has been the main chef at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, a landmark institution in the heart of New Orleans. “You see those pans over there and big pots,” she points, “there’s not a sign of rust on any of them because we scrub them every night, just like we scrub the floors at the end of the day.”
Despite the hustle and bustle at the restaurant on this Good Friday, the kitchen is spotless, and the staff moves swiftly to take care of the patrons who make reservations necessary but with no guarantee they will be available.
“Yesterday, on Holy Thursday, we served more than 600 customers and more than 1,600 pieces of chicken,” Mrs. Chase said. “And we will probably serve even more people over the weekend.”
Located not too far from Louis Armstrong Park and the Mahalia Jackson Museum, Dooky Chase is within walking distance and after a leisurely stroll down Basin Street or Clairborne Avenue, your appetite is whetted for some of the restaurant’s popular choices, perhaps none more in demand than the fried chicken and the gumbo z’herbes.
But one shouldn’t miss the yams, which apparently do not appear on the buffet, nor the red beans and rice, the potato salad and mac and cheese. And if you can get the greens without meat, you have some sides to titillate the mouth of the most demanding vegetarian. Oh, and don’t forget the peach cobbler with a scoop of ice cream.
When the badgering diner finishes his questions, Mrs. Chase resumes her task without missing a stroke.
Born to Creole parents in Louisiana, she was a teenager when she moved to New Orleans to live with other relatives and to attend St. Mary’s Academy, according to her website. Upon completing high school, she began working at the Colonial Restaurant in the fabled French Quarter. In 1945, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase II, a noted musician, whose parents owned the restaurant.
Once Mrs. Chase settled into the operation she meticulously changed the menu, adopting the Creole style that has given it a national reputation. In addition, she began decorated the walls with colorful art, mainly from the most talented of the local artists.
“Look around and you’ll see the history of New Orleans through the paintings,” she told the customer as he departed. “And you’ll also notice the letters from Pope John Paul and President Obama out front.”
Indeed, the letters are there and proudly displayed for the line of diners keeping her daughter, the maître d, extremely busy.
Amid a sea of unprepossessing buildings, in a generally run-down neighborhood, Dooky Chase is a veritable jewel. Visiting New Orleans without experiencing a meal at this notable eatery is akin to going to India and not seeing the Taj Mahal. And at Dooky Chase there’s art and the best soul and Creole food this side of Harlem.
* Photo of Elza Boyd and Mrs. Leah Chase by Herb Boyd