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City love affair: Treme, let's talk about food and Dooky Chase

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Leah Chase at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, photo via SoulofAmerica.com

Originally known as the Faubourg Tremé and named after real estate developer Claude Tremé, this quiet neighborhood’s tiny size (.69 square miles) belies its global influence.

Located just a block west of the suburb’s center, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant is an iconic landmark of New Orleans history, providing a crucial connection to the city’s past that was almost wiped away by the 2005 storm.

Its regal owner, 92-year-old Leah Chase (whose life story inspired the character of Princess Tiana in Disney’s The Princess & the Frog), remembers the early 20th century importance of the neighborhood to her family, all Creoles de Couleur.

“The Creoles of Color worked in homes and picked up the same culture as the white people,” she says. “They’d go to the Opera House, where they had their [racially segregated] upstairs corner. They had réveillons at Christmas and New Year’s, held at St. Augustine Church and Congo Square. The Tremé was the big thing for Creoles of Color.”

Down the street from St Augustine, which was designed by French architect J.N.B. de Pouilly (who also worked on Jackson Square’s St. Louis Cathedral) and remains the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the nation, there was a red-light district known as Storyville.

Established by the New Orleans City Council in 1897 to regulate prostitution, Storyville was popular with travelers, many of whom heard jazz (played by guys like Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden) there for the first time. Word of this lively new sound quickly spread far beyond the confines of Tremé and drew more visitors to the city.

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Chef Leah Chase in Dooky Chase’s Kitchen, photo via the Clarion Herald

Chase, who moved to the area at age 14 in 1937 to attend St Mary’s Academy, developed a passion for Creole cooking inspired by her grandparents. She was among the first African-Americans to work as a waitress in the French Quarter in 1940, when men shipped off to fight in World War II.

When she married popular jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II (whose parents originally owned Dooky Chase’s) in 1945, the strong-willed 22-year-old knew she wanted to make changes at the casual restaurant.

“When I got here, I said, ‘We’ve got to do better than fried chicken, fried fish and fried oysters! We have to do what [upscale white restaurants] do!’ The first thing I put on the menu was Lobster Thermidor, and the people threw a fit,” she recalls with a laugh. “They told my mother-in-law I was going to ruin her business! I had to back up and give them what they like.”

Chase poured her heart and soul into creating a menu steeped in Creole tradition– sumptuous dishes such as gumbo, red beans and rice and chicken Creole– whose roots could be traced back to West Africa.

Alongside soul food hotspot Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Dooky Chase’s put Tremé on the culinary map, influencing future icons like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Though New Orleans was still racially divided in the 1950s, whites and blacks alike lined up to dine at Miss Leah’s tables.

During the ‘60s, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. broke bread and discussed strategy with local freedom fighters such as Reverend A.L. Davis and Oretha Castle Haley in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky Chase’s. But despite the fact that her restaurant became a de facto headquarters for Civil Rights in Louisiana, Chase says most people her age didn’t understand the movement.

“We thought those young people were crazy as bats!” she laughs. “We were brought up not to offend people to get what we want. But sometimes you have to, and they knew that it had to be done. I helped them do it by feeding them. Some would go to jail and [Civil Rights lawyer A.P. Touro] had to go get them out. They’d clean up, come back here and eat again.

“They planned all their strategy right here over a bowl of gumbo,” she continues. “I tell young people today, sometimes you just need to sit down and talk. You may not agree on everything, but you can work together to work it out. But if you don’t sit down at the table, it’s not going to happen. You can change the world over a bowl of gumbo!”

As the world outside began to change, Tremé became increasingly integrated, attracting an eclectic mixture of artists, activists and other open-minded progressives. At the urging of her friend Celestine Cook, Chase ran for a position on the Board for the New Orleans Museum of Art (where blacks had been barred from entry until the mid-‘60s) and won.

She sat down at the table with icons such as sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, painter Jacob Lawrence and poet Maya Angelou. She learned to view art as an investment– not just financial, but a cultural investment in her community.

She gradually lined the walls of Dooky Chase’s with what many consider to be New Orleans’ finest collection of African-American art, telling vivid visual stories that run the gamut from ancient tribal West Africa to modern-day Louisiana.

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Artwork from Dooky Chase’s Restaurant from Green Global Travel

By the late 20th century, Chase had not only established herself as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, but also as one of Tremé’s preeminent civic and cultural leaders.

She nearly lost everything when Hurricane Katrina descended on New Orleans on August 28, 2005. “It was terrible: 80% of this city was underwater. In the restaurant, we had five feet of water in some places. I was in Birmingham and one of my grandsons, a fireman, called to tell me that Dooky Chase’s was destroyed, but the art was still intact.”

The community quickly rallied around her to save the beloved Tremé landmark. Firemen and policemen volunteered to help move her art collection to Baton Rouge. Companies such as Popeyes and Starbucks donated $50,000 to $150,000. The restaurant community held a Holy Thursday benefit dinner and raised an additional $40,000.

Less than two years after Katrina’s devastation, Dooky Chase’s reopened.

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All Smiles After a Busy Lunch Rush, photo via SoulofAmerica.com

Miss Leah acknowledges that Tremé looks a lot different now. Some former residents passed away, others moved on after the storm. Many houses are being rebuilt or refurbished.

The housing projects that used to stand across the street from Dooky Chase’s are gone, replaced by more well-built, energy-efficient buildings. There’s even a brand new school, the John Dibert Community School. While some critics carp that these are signs of gentrification, Chase sees them as signs of hope for the future.

“On that school, you see a tribal symbol of a dove looking backwards,” she says. “The bird is looking back to see how he can go forward. That’s what we have to do here in New Orleans. People are coming together, helping one another, and understanding one another more than ever before… And it all starts with sitting down at the table.”

 

This information was reposted from Green Global Travel, a NolaVie content partner.