Leah Chase’s philosophy is simple and delicious: “I always say we solve the problems of the world right here in this dining room over a bowl of gumbo.”
The 87-year-old Chase is a chef, author and TV personality nicknamed the Queen of Creole Cuisine whose popular New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase has served up fried chicken, jambalaya and gumbo for more than 50 years. She's also the real-life inspiration for the Disney animated film "The Princess and the Frog," which arrives on DVD this week.
During the 1960s, Dooky Chase was a gathering place for members of the civil rights movement. Celebrities also have flocked to her restaurant. Even President Obama has dropped by. “I served him gumbo, and the first thing Mr. Obama did was put hot sauce in my gumbo. I said, ‘Mr. Obama, you don’t put hot sauce in my gumbo.' ”
As you might imagine, the restaurant is more than just a restaurant. After it was destroyed during flooding from Hurricane Katrina, the community came together and held fundraisers for the rebuilding. She reopened the restaurant two years ago -- but is only serving lunch. (More on that below.)
Before the lunch crowd was about to descend on Dooky Chase, the imitable Chase chatted on the phone about her favorite subject — food.
Q: So what did you think of “Princess and the Frog”?
Leah Chase: I thought it was so beautiful, and everybody who knows me says I can see you in the character.
Q: I’ve caught you right before lunch.
LC: Yes. We do a lunch buffet today. We have fried chicken, jambalaya, smothered pork chops and greens, string beans and whatever.
Q: Are your lunches always served buffet-style?
LC: I hate it, but it is. I don’t like buffets. I rather you order what you want and I serve it nice on a plate for you. I like that better.
Q: So why do you do buffet?
LC: For the lunch customer, it is a quick thing. They can come in and we give them a cup of soup first and then they can go to the line leisurely or if they have a short time, they can get there in a hurry. The food is already prepared. It is better for lunch people because they get choices for one thing. We also have tuna salad, potato salad.
Q: Do you plan to eventually reopen for dinner?
LC: I am trying to open for dinner. Dinner is what I truly love. I wish I could serve breakfast and dinner. It is hard to do breakfast when you come against McDonald’s. I like leisurely breakfast. I am trying to do dinner ... I need more staff. I can produce this food between my grandson and me, but I need more staff.
Q: You married your husband in 1945 and his family owned the restaurant.
LC: My mother-in-law, she was a dynamo here. She was very unique. It is marvelous what she did here with no restaurant knowledge at all. She knew how to reach that bottom line. She knew how to make money, and she was a good cook. I worked in the French Quarter from 1942-45. I was a waitress. I loved waiting tables. I always wanted my own restaurant. Then I got married to Dooky. He had a big band then.
Q: Though there was segregation in New Orleans, I read that both blacks and whites ate at Dooky Chase.
LC: We had a strange place here. It was absolutely illegal for whites and blacks to eat together outside or entertain together. It sounds funny now. It was the law then and we just did it. But for some uncanny reason we always had whites come here. For political reasons this was the only place besides the churches they could meet with black people. If you were running for something and you were white and wanted to talk to black people, they would come here.
Q: How did the restaurant get to become a hangout for those in the civil rights movement in the 1960s?
LC: We were trying to integrate things through the NAACP. It was too slow and young people come with all kind of ideas. That is the good thing about young people — they have vision. They have very little to lose. So they would meet here and plan all of that over gumbo and fried chicken.
Q: Speaking of gumbo and fried chicken, are your patrons worried about cholesterol these days eating such heavy foods?
LC: No. People eat what they have to eat and then back off the next meal. That’s what you should do in life. For instance, growing up, we didn’t have fried chicken every day. We ate it only on Sunday so you would look forward to Sunday. You didn’t eat baked macaroni in the middle of the week — you would eat greens, rice and string beans, so you looked forward to Sunday when you had all the fancy extras. You got to do things in moderation.
Q: So I gather no one has asked you about cutting out trans fats?
LC: I go to the grocery, and if I see no fats on the label, I leave it on the shelf. I don’t know what the devil they did to take the fat out.
-- Susan King
Dooky Chase's Creole Gumbo
Note: This recipe has not been tested by The Times' Test Kitchen. Recipe from Chef Leah Chase
4 hard-shell crabs
1/2 pound chicken necks
1/2 pound smoked sausage
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 pound chicken gizzard
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons flour
6 chicken wings
1/2 pound Creole hot sausage
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound boneless veal stew meat
1 pound shrimp1 cup chopped onion
24 oysters in their liquid
4 quarts water1 1/2 pounds smoked ham
1 tablespoon file powder
Place crabs, sausage cut into bite-sized pieces, stew meat and gizzards in a 6-quart pot over medium heat. Cover and let cook in own fat and juices for 30 minutes. Heat oil in skillet and add flour to make roux. Stir constantly until very brown. Lower heat, add onion and cook over low heat until onions wilt. Pour onion mixture over meat in pot. Slowly add water, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil. Add chicken wings cut in half, necks skinned and cut, ham cubed, shrimp peeled and deveined, paprika, salt, garlic, parsley and thyme. Let simmer for 30 minutes. Add oysters and liquid and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat. Add file powder and stir well. Serve over rice.
Photo and Image : Walt Disney Co.
When the creators of Disney's 'Princess and the Frog' came to New Orleans in search of inspiration for their character Princess Tiana, locals pointed them into the direction of 87-year-old Leah Chase. The Creole chef known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine got to talking about her Louisiana upbringing, love for cooking and aspirations as a child to own her own restaurant. Never did she imagine that her life story would go on to inspire Disney to base their first black princess character on her; yet it did just that.
As hundreds of thousands of little girls poured out of movie theaters across the country, they walked away uplifted by a belief lived by her whole life, 'You can accomplish anything you put your mind to.' Chase may not be a household name outside of New Orleans, but her real life dreams, passions and accomplishments are in the hearts of any person who watches the film or buys 'Princess and the Frog: Tiana's Cookbook,' which Chase contributed to. After getting the chance to catch up with the fun spirited chef, it was easy to see why Disney became enamored with her real life Princess Tiana story and it's clear that when it comes to inspiring others, Chase is nowhere close to being finished.
How do you feel about being the inspiration behind this character?
I feel so grateful for that because I thought that was the nicest thing I've ever heard of. We've had these characters before and people like them but you can always feel good about yourself when you see somebody like you sometimes. That's what little black girls can see now; they can see a little black princess and that's uplifting for them. I have little girls who come and say "I want to be a cook just like you." It's beautiful how it has inspired a lot of little African-American girls. It got them thinking, "If I want a restaurant, if I want to cook, I can do that and I will do that." They know it's hard work and they know it's what you have to do to accomplish goals. I'm happy for that little movie. It really inspired a whole lot of people and it uplifted people-that is the most important thing to me-it uplifts people. It's just so beautiful.
Did the movie inspire you to create the recipes for the 'Princess and the Frog: Tiana's Cookbook'?
The movie inspired me to do more things, but I had all the recipes before. You know when you've been working in the kitchen as long as I've been-60 some years-you learn new things all the time and start from scratch. You start from what your mother teaches you and then if you like something you say you tweak it. Like if you meet people with other cultures and they talk about their food then you get ideas and you say, "That's nice but I'll do it my way." We call it 'Creolizing" everybody's idea. It's fun doing that.
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
I'll tell you that when I went to go work in this restaurant I knew how to cook because everyone that comes up in a home like I do is going to learn to cook whatever their mother cooks. So it was my mother and my mother-in-law was a good cook so you learn all kinds of things from the
people around you.
How would you describe your cooking?
For any chef, you cook the food that is you and what you're all about, and if people want to eat what I'm all about they come to me. If they want to eat Italian food and what other people are all about they go to other restaurants. I do down home cooking and just cooking that you would find in any kitchen and any home and people like that, so they come and eat it and enjoy it. It's good comfort food.
You've accomplished so much so far, what are your future goals?
You accomplish whatever you set your goals to. I never said I want to be this or I want to be that. Everyday I just do the things I like to do. I like to cook, I like to create new foods, I like to meet people and I like to feed people so that's what I do. If you do what you like and you do it well and you always have other people in mind, then you can succeed. It's never about you; it's about what you can do for somebody else. When I was coming up we were poor and didn't have much, but my Daddy gave us three things to live by: pray, work and do for others, but you had to do those three things in that order according to him. I found that all my life those three principles worked for me and I think it can work for anybody.