Eating in New Orleans: Classic Southern comfort food at Dooky Chase's Restaurant

A small crowd has gathered outside a corner restaurant in the New Orleans neighbourhood of Treme, waiting for its doors to open for lunch service. A young woman breaks the line to wiggle the handle and peer through a window, apologising for her impatience as she reclaims her position in the searing Louisiana midday sun.

"I'm just so excited, this has been on my bucket list forever," she gushes. "Seriously, I've watched The Princess and the Frog a million times. I just hope she's here today, she's my absolute hero!"

The "she" in question is Leah Chase, the beloved 93-year-old executive chef of Dooky Chase's Restaurant and the undisputed Queen of Creole Cuisine. Over seven decades, this self-taught cook has fed famous musicians, community leaders and politicians, written three cookbooks, made numerous television appearances and won a swag of awards, including a recent James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award – the first black chef to be bestowed such an honour.

This is the woman who famously slapped Barack Obama's hand when the then future president had the gall to pour hot sauce on her gumbo; and you may have caught a glimpse of her recently, proud and resplendent on a high-backed gold throne in Beyonce's Emmy-nominated visual album, Lemonade, one of a slew of powerful black women who make a cameo appearance. 

Yes, Miss Leah, as she is called in the South, is a true New Orleans rock star – and the inspiration for Disney's first animated black heroine in 2009's The Princess and the Frog, a tale of a poor young woman with big dreams of opening her own restaurant. 

Now celebrating its 75th year, Dooky Chase's is an institution in the New Orleans culinary scene, lauded as serving the best gumbo and fried chicken in the city. And while diners are guaranteed a hearty meal punching with flavour and soul, this humble brick building is so much more than just a restaurant – it's a meeting place, an art gallery, a cultural hub and a symbol of freedom and equality. As fellow James Beard alumni John Besh said, it's "75 years of an evolution – in many ways the cornerstone of an entire culture".

It was here, during the 1950s and 1960s, that civil rights leaders and freedom riders such as Martin Luther King jnr, Thurgood Marshall, A.P Tureaud, the Reverend A.L Davis and Oretha Castle Haley would meet and strategise over bowls of steaming gumbo and fried chicken; even though it was illegal for blacks and whites to eat under the same roof, it was a safe haven in troubled times, and technically the first integrated restaurant in the country.

Today, it continues to welcome diners from every culture and race, tourists and locals alike relishing its lunchtime buffets loaded with classic Southern comfort food – fried chicken, gumbo, andouille​ sausage, red beans and rice, stuffed shrimp and peach cobbler. And overseeing it all is the queen herself, a constant presence in the kitchen and showing no signs of abdicating her throne.

Inside the dining room, its red walls lined with a priceless collection of black American art, a hush descends over the white-clothed tables as Miss Leah, dressed in a becoming hot-pink chef's jacket, makes an appearance, her progression slow and a little unsteady as she balances on a walker. Immediately, she is swamped with admirers, phone cameras raised in selfies as she greets them with a smile and a hug, showing all the grace and dignity of her royal British counterparts. 

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"Ain't you pretty in your raggedy pants!" Leah jokes as a young woman, dressed in ripped white shorts and dangly earrings asks me to take their photo. But when I suggest that she may be a role model to young women like this, Leah scoffs, her brown eyes dancing.

"I ain't a role model," she says, shaking her head. "Role models are nice people. I'm not nice all the time, I get frustrated and furious. In the kitchen, I'm always getting into trouble from my daughter when I yell at my staff. She says, 'You can't call them stupid jackasses!' But they are paid good money to be yelled at!"

It's difficult to believe that this sweet, humble and endearing lady could raise her voice in anger – but there's no doubting her fortitude or determination, qualities that have resulted in her ceiling-smashing rise to prominence to stand alongside Louisiana's top chefs in a competitive and cutthroat industry. 

Her story is as inspirational as any Disney script – raised in rural Madisonville, Louisiana, as the eldest of 11 children, Leah first broke the cultural mould at the age of 16 by taking a job as a waitress in the French Quarter – definitely a "no no" in those days.

"Oh, they thought that was the worst thing I could have done," she tells me. "That wasn't what a good Creole of colour did – you don't go around the French Quarter, you don't even go near it, my dear! But I went to work there, I waited tables – and I loved it."

After meeting and marrying a local big band leader, Edgar "Dooky" Chase jnr, in 1946, this ambitious young woman took what she learned in "white restaurants" to her husband's family business – a bar and po-boy sandwich shop – transforming it into a sit-down restaurant with fancy white tablecloths and jazz music, serving homestyle Creole cooking with a dash of French Quarter sophistication. 

"Black people did not eat out, they cooked at home," Leah says. "They were great cooks and if they came out to eat, it was to eat a sandwich. So here I was trying to change things, trying to serve what they served in the French Quarter, cream sauces and all that, and the coloured people thought I was crazy! They were not accustomed to that, so I had to back up and start doing the things that I knew people liked."

But all that started to change as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. "When integration came and black people could go to other restaurants, they wanted what they saw there," Leah recalls. "And they'd come back and say, 'Leah, you need to fix this, learn to fix that'. That to me was the worst thing about segregation, you kept people from learning – people didn't have the opportunity to learn."

Not that a lack of formal opportunities stopped Leah from educating herself. "I had to wing it. I had to get every book I could get, study every book I could study, and do it for myself. 

"In our community, being a cook was nothing. At one time, they didn't want my daughter to come out in so-called society, because I was 'only a cook', and I had what they called 'just a bar'. I didn't have any formal education and black people looked at that as nothing. So I had to overcome all of that."

Opportunity, when it came her way, was something to be embraced; during the 1970s, for instance, she was offered a position of the board of the New Orleans Museum of Art, despite having no background or real knowledge of the subject matter. 

"At that time, African-Americans had no place to show their work. So I started collecting, and putting it on the walls here. I got criticised for that too by the black community! They didn't understand art at all, we couldn't even go into museums at that time."

Today, the Dooky and Leah Chase Collection of African American Art, including works by renowned artists such as Elizabeth Catlett​ and Jacob Lawrence, is considered by many to be the best in New Orleans. But they nearly lost it all – and the business – during New Orleans' darkest hour, Hurricane Katrina, when the restaurant was swamped by 1.5 metres of murky water. 

"I lost everything except for the art. I saved it because my grandson was a fireman at the time. One evening he called me and he said, 'They (the New York Fire Department) are gonna help me take it off the wall and they're going to bring it to Baton Rouge. So I was able to save the art but that's all I saved. The rest just went, the chairs, the food, everything."

It was the community that the Chases had served so loyally for decades that came to the restaurant's rescue, firstly by protecting it from vandals, then raising $US40,000 during a benefit lunch serving Leah's famous gumbo z'herbes. The thought of closing down permanently was never an option for Leah; and the landmark restaurant finally reopened in April 2007 after a half million dollar restoration.

Despite Dooky Chase's standing in the New Orleans community, its irrepressible chef still sees room for improvement. She's hoping to add Saturday night to their repertoire, and she'd like to re-introduce takeout as a way of connecting with their neighbours.

"You never forget the people who made you," she says. "You don't forget people, no matter what problems they have or their lifestyle, you try to be nice to them. And that's why I want to give back with takeout."

And when the thorny subject of retirement is broached, the grand old dame of Creole cooking dismisses the thought with an emphatic "no!". 

"And do what? Just sit down and wait to die?" she laughs. "I can't do that. I was taught different. There's always something to do. I've got work to do."

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

neworleansonline.com

GETTING THERE

United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, with domestic connections to New Orleans; see united.com

STAYING THERE

The Renaissance Pere Marquette is located on the fringe of the French Quarter, within walking distance of all major sights. Rooms from $US92 ($120) a night; see marriott.com.au

EATING THERE

Dooky Chase's Restaurant is open for buffet lunch from Tuesday through Friday, and for dinner on Fridays. The buffet lunch costs $US19.95, with mains from $US17.95; see dookychaserestaurant.com

Julie Miller was a guest of Dooky Chase's Restaurant.

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