If you call Leah Chase, chef and co-owner of New Orleans’s soul restaurant Dooky Chase-which might just actually be the Crescent City’s true soul-you have to wait until she moves around some pots and plates and can let her cooking be. Except for the past few years of post-Katrina recovery, Dooky Chase has been open since 1941. Hailed as the “Queen of Creole Cooking,” a title she laughs about, Chase, now 85, is about to come to Santa Barbara for her first time. Good news for us, as we get to enjoy her oyster po’ boys just by driving to the Santa Ynez Valley.
Iris Rideau, owner of Rideau Vineyard, is throwing her annual birthday bash on Saturday, September 13, and could think of no one she wanted to honor more than Chase. “Leah and my mother were girlhood friends in New Orleans,” Rideau explained. “She lived with us for a while. Since then, we’ve connected on a different level. We’ve bonded again, but stronger through food and wine and as Creole women. I wanted to do something for her, so some of the proceeds of the event will go to Leah.”
Chase said, “I like Iris’s wines, her viognier and tempranillo. I’m proud of Iris. Never did I think I’d see that, when I was holding this baby, that she’d grow up to be an African-American woman with a winery.” Of course Chase has seen amazing change throughout her years, and is surprised equally that New Orleans cuisine has become celebrated worldwide. “That food you see is Cajun, is Creole, but there’s Creole and Creole, you know that,” she explained. “What I serve and what they serve. Food at the Commander’s Palace is influenced by Spanish and French, period. Mine is a little Spanish, a little French, and plenty African.”
That doesn’t mean she wears the title “Queen of Creole Cooking” comfortably. “In my community, there are many people who could claim that title-Iris’s mother, for one, and her grandmother, too,” she said. “The chefs in New Orleans are unbelievable people. John Besh, Emeril Lagasse, and Paul Prudhomme are certified chefs and they include me in everything they do and I just cook. I’m just an old woman in a kitchen.”
Of course her modesty downplays the enormous historical significance of Dooky Chase (named after her husband’s father, who with his wife originally owned a sandwich shop in the same location in Treme; her husband also is named Dooky). Chase explained that when she came to New Orleans from what was then the “country” across Lake Pontchartrain that “a woman let me work in a restaurant and I’d never seen a restaurant in my life. It was segregation and there weren’t restaurants for black people.” That didn’t stop Chase from creating the first such establishment in New Orleans. “My food is down home cooking,” she explained. “But even if you serve red beans and rice, it’s got to be elegant. I just like nice things. I don’t care how simple it is.”
Nothing was simple during the Civil Rights movement, when the restaurant became an impromptu clubhouse. “The NAACP were working through the system easy, but oh so slow. The new breed wanted to bash doors down, so they would plan sit-ins and we’d feed them fried chicken and gumbo and the ones not arrested would come back next week and plan again,” she remembered. “You didn’t have time to document things. Now everyone has a camera-his phone is a stupid camera. I didn’t have time. All I had to do was try to get it done.”
That work ethic runs deep in Leah Chase. At one point she insisted, “Get up off your heinie and do what you need to do in your community. From the day I came into this world they told me I had to work. Since I was two, I was washing dishes.” That work continues as she tries to get the restaurant reopened after more than five feet of flooding during Katrina. “‘Asleep in the deep’ is what my sister calls it,” she said. “Eighty percent of this city was under water. It happened overnight but you can’t rebuild overnight. But I’m one of the fortunate ones. I’m just a little black woman sitting in a corner of a little black city and people all around the country have tried to help.” The best way to do that? “You have to visit and we have to feed you.”
In the meantime, we can all attend Rideau’s birthday celebration close to home, enjoy Leah Chase’s po’ boys and a host of other New Orleans delights, drink Iris Rideau’s wine including the 2006 Ch•teau Duplantier Cuvee (syrah, mourvedre, and grenache-what’s yummier than that?), stomp some grapes, and enjoy music that will end with the famous Second Line dance through the property. With Leah Chase in attendance, there will be at least one saint marching in.
Leah Chase comes to Rideau Vineyard (1562 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang) for Iris Rideau’s annual birthday bash on Saturday, September 13, from 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Call 688-0717 or see rideauvineyard.com.