Feeding people has been a labor of love for Leah Chase for more than six decades. Even now, as she turns 95 years old on Saturday, she is still a regular presence in the kitchen and dining rooms of her landmark Dooky Chase's restaurant.
Mrs. Chase walks a little slower now because of her knees, but she doesn't complain. “I love what I do. If I wouldn't come in this Kitchen every day, I think I would be miserable. My children say, 'Why don't you stay home?' Nope! I don't want to stay home. I want to do what I do,” she said.
Dooky Chase's restaurant on Orleans Ave. has been in the Chase family for four generations. Leah came to work in the restaurant after she married the love of her life, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a marriage that lasted 70 years. “This is the funny thing – when we got married, people told my mother-in-law this is not going to work. I was 23. He was 18. 'This girl is just going to come in here and ruin your business,' they said. But I loved Dooky and I know he loved me. “
Mr. Chase passed away last year. Their union produced four children, 16 grandchildren (all of whom are college graduates) and 27 great-grandchildren. “I'm the luckiest woman in the world. I had only high school education but you're always supposed to bring your children up higher than you so I wanted my children to get good education, get extra degrees and I was lucky.”
Dooky Chase is part of the history of New Orleans. During the civil rights movement, it provided a safe haven for activists, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the young Freedom Riders.
“I fed them gumbo and fried chicken and they met here, we gave them space to meet. Nobody ever bothered them. Never ever did a policeman come inside of this restaurant.”
Since then, presidents have dined here. She says President George W. Bush was very kind and she admired President Barack Obama's brilliance, except for one thing. “I had to slap him,” she laughed, “because he ordered the gumbo. First thing he does, he takes the hot sauce (and pours it) in the gumbo. Mr. Obama, you don't put hot sauce in my gumbo, you don't do that! So I had to reprimand him.”
Mrs. Chase has received many awards, including the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. Also, Disney's first African-American princess, Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog,” was inspired by Leah Chase's incredible life.
“They made the prettiest little princess you ever saw, she's a pretty little thing. I loved the way they handled that and they really did it well and little children look at that and it's just fun to see what they think about Princess Tiana. A little blonde boy came to my kitchen one day and he looked at me, he told his mother, 'She's not Tiana. I said I'm sorry, Tiana just got old!”
Leah Chase says it's important to uplift people. “Just treat people fairly, no matter what - they may think totally different than you do and that's okay too. But I can be kind to you. I can see a good part in you.”
And on this, her 95th birthday, what is her wish? “I just hope, more than wish, that people would understand how important it is to live. How important living is and what it takes to live. You were given this earth and it's yours. I believe that, that God threw you out on this earth and said 'Here, it's yours. Now you have to build it up, it's your job to make this earth what it's supposed to be, build it up and get back to me.'”
Mrs. Chase will celebrate her 95th birthday Saturday, Jan. 6 with a gala event at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Tickets are $250 per person and proceeds will benefit the Edgar "Dooky" Chase Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation, which supports causes involving social justice, education the arts and culinary programs.