The Creole Grande Dame

Chris Granger
by Sara Roahen - Louisiana - Oct/Nov 2011

It takes more than a good roux to make someone a New Orleans culinary institution

The chef Leah Chase has made a living, and a name, by working with her hands, but it’s her tongue that makes you wish you’d brought your notebook to lunch. “Never explain your actions,” she told me recently, interrupting my apology for having fallen out of touch. “Your enemies don’t believe it and your friends don’t need it.”

That adage came from her mother, Hortensia Lange, who gave birth to Leah in January 1923, just months after her first child died of burn complications from a toppled pot of scalded milk. “You don’t question your parents enough about things,” says Leah, who never considered how devastating that loss must have been for her mother until her own daughter and right-hand woman at Dooky Chase Restaurant, Emily, died during childbirth in 1990.

Leah’s life story is filled with heartache and humor, though the way she tells it—by punctuating sentences with a broad smile and another aphorism—leaves you remembering only the latter. The overriding themes at the Lange household in rural Madisonville, Louisiana, were faith and work. Leah’s father, Charles, supported his brood of eleven children by working in a shipyard and keeping a large kitchen garden. Chores were a way of life for everyone. Eating with Leah is the best way to learn about her childhood. Strawberry shortcake reminds her of making strawberry wine; okra gumbo, of sun-drying okra from the garden; roast quail, of shooting the birds that threatened the family’s sizable strawberry patch. Her mother would stew the quail with plums. 

Her upbringing bred in Leah a fierce work ethic and a disdain for idleness. “I like to see people work their work,” she says. “Work that show.” It’s also surely what drove her into the workforce shortly after graduating from high school in New Orleans at just sixteen years old. (There was no high school for black students in Madisonville, so Leah lived with relatives in the city during the school year.) She first worked in French Quarter restaurants, and then, after marrying the young trumpet player and orchestra conductor Edgar “Dooky” Chase II and bearing four children, she went to work in her in-laws’ small sandwich shop on Orleans Avenue.