Friday, 17 June 2011

Leah Chase and Carol Allen

I met Carol Allen, the author of Leah Chase's biography at the Ladies in Red Gala last week. She was so kind to me and agreed to take me to lunch at Dooky Chase's to meet Leah Chase, "the Queen of Creole Cooks." Quel Bonheur! She picked me up in the Quarter today and we drove to the restaurant. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by Mr. Dooky Chase himself. Carol introduced me to him, and he was so excited to hear that I was researching Lena Richard. What a precious older gentleman...he had such a twinkle in his eye, and he proudly wore his white apron and white baseball cap! Then, Leah and Dooky's daughter, Stella, said hello to us and asked us to take a seat while they prepared our table.

Within the first minute of being at Dooky Chase's, I felt like I was with a celebrity guest...but in this case, a good friend of the family. In the eyes of the Chase family, friends and family are the most special guests of all. As I sat in the little parlor making pleasant small talk with Carol, I peered around me. The bar area to my left was painted emerald green and had these beautiful foggy blown glass light fixtures with little flecks of emerald green and ruby red in them. I really liked the color combination in the room. The parlor was filled with a few larger photos: President Obama hugging Leah Chase; President Obama tucking a red napkin into the neck of his shirt, with a huge boyish grin on his face; George W. Bush sitting down for a meal at the restaurant; and a sketching of Leah Chase and Tiana from Disney Pixar's Princess and the Frog (2009) signed by none other than John Lasseter (head of Walt Disney Animation Studios), Ron Clements and a few other animators...did you know that Tiana was modeled after Leah Chase? During the 1940s, Leah had worked as a waitress in New Orleans' restaurants, and all the while dreamt of opening up her own restaurant, and eventually did (sound familiar?)

After a few minutes, we were seated in one of the three dining rooms: this one was painted cranberry red and featured folk art from black artists. The colors in the paintings were spectacular. There are two other dining rooms at Dooky Chase's. One is painted the color of whipped hollandaise sauce, the other of cool honeydew. Carol recommended that I have the buffet, and our lovely waitress suggested that I try the lemonade. She said, "This is your first time here? Then you have to have the lemonade!" It was really good lemonade. Then our cup of okra gumbo came out: you could see the little okra seeds floating around in the stew. It was a really dark gumbo, quite thick too. There was shrimp, rice and nothing but gumbo goodness...simple and delicious.

Within 10 minutes, Mrs. Chase made her way over to our table. She was wearing a pumpkin colored chef's smock with a striped white and purple shirt underneath. She said hello to Carol and me and sat down at our table for a chat...which lasted 2 hours! What a treat! She spoke about her childhood, Lena Richard, operating a restaurant during World War II, early television and famous black cooks: including Mandy Lee and Freda DeKnight. I was so busy chatting with Mrs. Chase, that Carol offered to fill my plate up from the buffet. Delicious egg salad, potato salad, beets, tuna salad, and fresh watermelon. It reminded me of summer picnics in Pittsburgh, but had a distinctive taste...quite different from what I was used to (aka my Grandma Rose's salads)

We continued to chat, and Mrs. Chase said, "I don't want to prevent you from eating. Eat up!" and then she had another plate fixed for me with fried chicken and eggplant casserole. The fried chicken was the best fried chicken I ever had in MY LIFE. It came right out of the oven, was hot hot hot and full of flavor. The dark meet was so tender, and the breading so light and crispy. YUUUUM! The eggplant casserole was full of shrimp and other delicious flavors that I could not quite put my finger on...

At the end of the meal we had peach cobbler. It was a nice sweet treat to top of a once in a lifetime meal.

Thanks for sharing your memories, Mrs. Chase!

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