A Tribute Fit for a Queen
I remember my last visit to Dookey Chase’s. It was a warm July day and my cousins, who were in town for the Essence Festival, had eaten all the crawfish, fried shrimp, po’boys, and beignets they could take and wanted some real food. Well, seeing that NOLA is 20 degrees hotter than hell during the Summer-cooking was not an option. So decided to take them to the best place I know to get “real food” – the lunch Buffet a Dooky Chase’s.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant as we know it opened its doors for business in 1941 but it actually started out as a sandwich shop and the spot to buy lottery tickets by her in-laws. In 1946, Leah married jazz trumpeter and band leader Edgar "Dooky" Chase II and in true “let me upgrade you” fashion, gradually turned it into a sit down restaurant where she added her beloved Creole food to the menu.
We pulled up to the non-descript brick building on Orleans and Claiborne and noticed how easily it could be mistaken for a neighborhood church. We walked in and the first thing that hit me was the cool air. Yassss. That was my first clue that Chef Chase knew how to treat her guests. Every moment after that gave me that warm feeling like you were visiting your Grandmother on your dad’s side of the family on Easter Sunday. The vibrant art, the sparkling chandeliers, the warm and friendly service worked in concert to make you feel like an honored guest.
The lunch buffet had all my favorites, Red Beans and rice, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and her famous fried chicken. I had a peach cobbler desert and a rum punch situation that had me in a “mood”. As I looked around I could not help but think about all things Chef Chase must have seen in these rooms. The conversations, the people, the music.
Breaking me out of this day dream was the slight sound of some commotion at the buffet line. I turned to see the legend herself in a red chef top moving cooked greens from one pan to the other and telling the line worker something about needing to keep it “hot”.
I thought about getting up, going over and telling her how much I admired her, asking for a picture. I don’t know if it was the rum punch or the habit we tend to have to take monuments for granted, but I did not move from that chair, confident I had time.
But simply being in her presence that afternoon moved something in me. Made me appreciate what we have in New Orelans. What she was to New Orleans. It made me realize that there are some people that aren’t only larger than life, they’re making the lives of others better.
Chef Chase serves as my inspiration. It’s given me the confidence to cook, and to have people I love enjoy it over conversation. Over laughs. Over tears. Over time. One of her quotes that has walked with me for years is this:
“I’m not a leader. I’m a good follower and I can help uplift a good leader. The truth is not everybody can be a leader. But if your job is to help that leader you’ll go up with her, you’ll go up with him. You treat people right and you try to make a difference, and when you work together everyone will benefit.”
She will be remembered as a legend. As the Queen of Creole Cuisine. Rest in Peace, Chef Chase. Thank you for being an inspiration for a city. For a nation. For me.