MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington. That sounds like the guest list of a party you wish you'd been invited to. And in a way, you were, because all of these famous names were regular visitors to one of New Orleans' best loved restaurants.
For decades, Dooky Chase's has been a gathering place where the famous and the not-so-famous line up for a plate or two of Leah's equally famous Creole cuisine. Now, the woman known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine adds another feather to her cap this weekend when the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience presents her with the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award and Leah Chase is with us now from Dooky Chase's in New Orleans.
Welcome. Congratulations on this honor.
LEAH CHASE: Well, thank you so much. You know, this, to me, is really, really an honor.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you if awards like this at this stage - I mean, you've had so many accolades. Everybody just adores you.
CHASE: You know...
MARTIN: Does it still mean something to get an award like this?
CHASE: It does. It really - you are grateful for it and what it does for me is just like you taking your empty automobile to the gas station and getting your tank filled up, so when I get an award, it just gives me courage to keep going.
MARTIN: How would you describe the Dooky Chase experience?
CHASE: Well, it's been up and down, as I tell people. Like Langston Hughes said, it sure ain't been no crystal staircase, but it's always fun. People come and they say, well, Leah, you fed this president. You fed President Bush twice. You fed this one, President Obama, but presidents come and go. It's that everyday customer that comes and tell you - like, when I was coming out here to talk to you, one lady said, I remember coming here when I was in high school. So that is a good feeling for me, you know, that people remember me. I couldn't live, honey, without people.
MARTIN: I wanted to go back and ask about the restaurant and its history. You started working at Dooky Chase's when you got married. It was originally your husband's parents' restaurant. It was a lot...
MARTIN: It was different, though, right, than...
CHASE: It was.
MARTIN: ...what it became?
CHASE: It wasn't what it is today because, you see, it was segregation back in those days and, you know, blacks couldn't eat in white restaurants and so we didn't know. So my mother-in-law, great lady she was - she was really a visionary and, when her husband got sick and couldn't go out, she took on a sandwich shop and she made it grow.
MARTIN: But you had a different vision, as I recall. You had worked in restaurants in the French Quarter.
CHASE: Yes. I worked...
MARTIN: And you had hoped to make it a little...
CHASE: ...French Quarter in 1940.
MARTIN: And make it a little bit more - what would you say? Fancy?
CHASE: See, make it more like a restaurant. You see, because black people had what we'd call just like little sandwich shops and we didn't know restaurants as I knew them when I worked in the French Quarter, when you went - there was a white tablecloth and the tables were set and all this kind of thing because we were not able to go in to see what they were all like.
So, when I went to work there, I just loved it. I loved it. I met a lot of people, served Doris Duke and Ricky Alvarez, so I learned to appreciate that, appreciate food, so when you learn something, I believe that you got to pass it on. So I said, well, wait. We got to bring this to my side of the town.
MARTIN: I read in an interview with you in the Times a while back that you said that you had hoped that you could do things like Lobster Thermidor and the cream sauces, but folks on your side of town weren't exactly going for that, as I recall.
CHASE: Because they hadn't - listen, honey. They had no knowledge of that. We were not allowed in those restaurants where they served the cream sauces, so what did we know? And I will go to my grave saying the best thing about integration is people were educated into other things. You learn about other cultures, you learn about food, you learn about a lot of things.
MARTIN: Well, as you've noted, though, already, it isn't just African-Americans who appreciate your food. I know President Bush certainly was a person who visited the restaurant and loved it and you've had lots of recognition. I wondered, though, did it bother you that you didn't really become recognized as a chef until relatively late in your career? Does that bother you?
CHASE: No. It doesn't bother me. When I started the French Quarter, you know, I was like the first women to wait tables. They had only men back there before the '40s and, to tell you the truth, chefs were not recognized anywhere like they are today. You know, we had - in the kitchens - in the big kitchens in the big houses, you had black men and they were just cooks, honey. So they just did what they knew and went on.
Then, you know, you got a little bit more sophisticated, which is good. Times educate you. It makes you do different, so then your chef had to be educated. Your chef had to go to culinary school. He had to have a degree in all of that kind of stuff, so that's when the poor black guys got cut out because they did not have that. So you know who replaced all those black men?
MARTIN: No. Who?
CHASE: It's the funniest thing. White women. And I was pretty proud of that. It's such a wonderful thing to see growth. Honey, that is the best thing for me living this long is I have seen people grow. I've seen cities grow. I've seen times change. Wonderful changes and I love it.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the legendary Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine. She has just earned another honor for her lifetime of achievement in New Orleans cuisine.
You know, you were saying earlier that this is - quoting the Langston Hughes poem, life hasn't been a crystal stair. Was the - we spoke, really, a couple of years ago, after Hurricane Katrina, and your restaurant was damaged after that.
CHASE: I lost everything.
MARTIN: And I know it's painful to think about, but I wanted to ask. How did you get through that experience?
CHASE: You know, honey, that's how I know I am stoned out of my mind crazy because, you know, when things hit me, you know, I can't stop and feel sorry or you might go home and take a cry, but you get up and you go again and, when this hit me and I came in here and saw everything gone, I said, oh, my goodness. And, well, I was what? Eighty-three years old then. I was old and people say, well, why are you going back? But what else was there for me to do? And, thank goodness, so many people helped me, so when people help you, then I think the only way I could show you I appreciate you or I care about you is doing for you. That's the only thing I know.
MARTIN: Do you have a favorite dish?
CHASE: A favorite dish?
MARTIN: Yeah. What's your favorite thing to cook?
CHASE: I like to cook everything, but my favorite thing to cook is just stuffed things. I like to stuff chicken breasts. I like to stuff everything, you know, and everything I eat, I said, oh, I could stuff that. I went down to - and I love oxtails. I went down to a place, one of John Besh's restaurants, and I loved it and he pulled it off the bone. I thought I was going to have to gnaw on that bone and I said, oh, this is a good idea. Now, I could take this whole oxtail, take the bone out and stuff it. And stuff it. I'm always thinking about stuffing things, even stuffing people.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations again. I'm wondering what they're going to serve you at the event when you receive your award.
CHASE: OK. I don't care what they serve me, darling, as long as they serve me.
MARTIN: Well, all right.
CHASE: I tell them all the time, as long as you sit me down to a table, I'll eat anything as long as you serve it to me.
MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you for taking the time. I know you're a famously tireless worker, so I'm very appreciative that we were able to lure you away from the restaurant long enough to talk about this, so thank you.
CHASE: Well, thank you so much, dear, and good luck to you and, one day, you have to come so I can stuff you.
MARTIN: All right. That's a date. Leah Chase is the Queen of Creole Cuisine. Her latest honor is the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience and she was kind enough to take just a few minutes to speak with us from the legendary Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chef Chase, thank you so much.
CHASE: Thank you, darling, and good luck. OK?
MARTIN: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.