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Upcoming documentary on Leah Chase nears completion

leah chase

In an upcoming documentary on famed New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase, Chef John Besh explains what makes her iconic restaurant Dooky Chase's stand out.

“What’s important to know is that it’s not all about the food,” he says in Leah Chase: Faith, Family & Food (a working title). “The food is what she uses as a tool for bringing people together."

“Food was a means, it was not an end,” says Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the film. “It was the opportunity for her and her family to create space … that was comfortable for people of real courage and conviction to meet did in fact change the world.”

That’s not an overstatement from the mayor.

Leaders of the Civil Rights movement found great friends and supporters in Leah and husband (Edward) Dooky Chase. National leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, along with local figures such as A.P. Tureaud, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, Revius O. Ortique Jr. and Oretha Castle Haley, devised strategies in the upstairs dining room. When she describes those planning sessions, she says, "I like to think we changed the world through a bowl of gumbo."

But you didn’t have to be a well-known freedom fighter to feel welcome at Dooky Chase’s.

“She wants everyone to feel at home when they come in here,” says Chase's daughter Stella Reece in the film. “And she feels as though the restaurant has to be a place fitting of whoever comes in to eat, whether it be a person that you see a person you see daily on the streets of new Orleans or, as she has done, whether it is the President of the United States.  (On his 2009 trip to New Orleans, President Obama was famously admonished by Chase for attempting to add hot sauce to her gumbo before tasting it.)

“Her legacy has been to share her love and good fortune with everybody that she met,” says Besh. “From the richest person in town to the most powerful politicians in the country, to the poor folks right across the street from her restaurant -- she’s there as a cornerstone, and she gives them all a little piece of her soul.”

Faith, Family & Food is similar to one of Producer Bess Carrick’s previous films, Lindy Boggs: Steel and Velvet, in that it deals with the “culture and the stories about Louisiana, mixed with the fascinating strong woman character who’s done a lot,” says Carrick.

We meet Leah when she’s one of 11 children growing up in a small Mandeville home during the Great Depression. “There’s a lot of poverty, with Jim Crow very much affecting her,” said Carrick.

Her father was a devout Catholic, “more Catholic than the Pope,” says Chase, and raised the family as such. Her mother was similarly no-nonsense.

“My mother gave me four rules to live by,” says Chase, describing those difficult times. “You had to look like a girl, you had to act like a lady, you had to think like a man, and you had to work like a dog.”

And Chase worked. She and her siblings would pick strawberries on the way to school to earn some extra pennies, and later, when she was a waitress, she’d often step back into the kitchen to wash dishes, too. “I would work the whole thing,” she says. “I would work and ask the chef all kinds of things and he would get angry because chefs get angry when you’re butting into their business.”

She’d go to work in the family restaurant in 1949, and “it’s been my life ever since,” she says.

The cooking and the civil rights and the art all are given equal treatment in the documentary, as well as plenty about her impressive African-American collection.

“As the story goes along, we just want to lay a foundation of sorts of who she is and then of course what she became, which is now really a legendary figure,” says Carrick.

In 2005, “Hurricane Katrina comes into the story in the sense that here she is at 86 years old, with everything gone,” says Carrick.

But with a lot of hard work and determination, plus help from near and far, Leah and Dooky had the restaurant back up and running just two years later, providing portions of both good food as well as sanity.

“She was that voice in the darkness when there was such controversy after Katrina,” says Besh. “She was the voice out there just saying, you know what, let’s not talk about crazy things like big government blowing up our levees to flood out New Orleans and all these conspiracy theories."

“She was the one saying, ‘we were soaked; let’s figure out how to bounce back; let’s figure out how to be one city', and that message really sparked what we’ll call the new renaissance of New Orleans.”

Like Steel and Velvet, Carrick says the film will be introduced on the statewide PBS affiliate before airing nationally. For more information, visit www.leahchase.org.

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.