When I mentioned I might be eating at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to one New Orleans resident, she clapped her hands twice while stomping her foot to punctuate her endorsement: “DOOKY. CHASE!”
She explained that the fried chicken was award-winning and President Obama had eaten there. And sure enough, when you enter the lobby there’s an adorable picture on the wall of President Obama, playfully tucking a napkin into his collar as he prepares to dig into a bowl of gumbo. It’s cute at first, but particularly touching once one understands the context.
Most American high school graduates are aware of Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott. But relatively few are probably aware of the fact that it was inspired by another bus boycott two years earlier in Baton Rouge. King and the Freedom Riders met with the organizers of the Baton Rouge boycott in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky Chase. And chef Leah Chase served them her famous gumbo and fried chicken while they plotted to change the world.
Leah Chase, to put it simply, is a badass. Born in 1923 as one of 11 children, she moved to New Orleans because there were no high schools that admitted blacks in her home town. She would go on to manage amateur boxers, work for local bookies, and wait tables in the French Quarter. In 1946 she married jazz musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Jr. whose parents sold po’ boy sandwiches and lottery tickets from a street corner stand, and eventually she and Edgar took over the family business and expanded it into a full restaurant.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant became vital to black workers on the Mississippi River at a time when there were no black-owned banks and therefore few places for those workers to cash their paychecks. The bar at Dooky’s had a loyal enough clientele and a healthy enough cash flow to take a chance cashing their patrons’ checks on Fridays.
New Orleans civil rights leaders met at Dooky’s throughout the ‘60s to discuss voter registration, the NAACP, and various political strategies. Even though such meetings were illegal at the time, Dooky’s had become so popular that the local authorities dared not shut them down. And as the years went by the restaurant would serve the likes of Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, and Hank Aaron.
And as far as the food is concerned: There’s a reason the locals clapped when I brought up the name Dooky Chase. The fried chicken is perfection, the stuffed shrimp were enormous and unforgettable, and the gumbo had an elusive personal touch to it that elevated it above the four other cups of gumbo I sampled at different restaurants during my trip. You will not leave hungry.
Dooky Chase doesn’t even feel like a restaurant. It’s almost like you’re at a large dinner party at someone’s home, with food prepared by a close relative.
And it’s not an illusion.
As we were about to pay our bill, the dining room burst into applause. I turned to see an elderly woman with a walker at the far end of the room, smiling and waving to the crowd. It was Leah Chase, coming out to see how we all enjoyed her cooking.
She made her way through the restaurant, greeting the patrons. Some had cookbooks for her to sign. I made sure to compliment her on our meal. She was as friendly and sweet as you might imagine, asking us what we had eaten and where we were from. She even happily agreed to a photo. I had expected a delicious dinner, but I hadn’t expected to shake hands with the culinary hero of the civil rights movement who was also, I would later learn, the inspiration for Princess Tiana in The Princess and the Frog.
On the way out of the restaurant there’s another picture of Obama, smiling and hugging Leah Chase. I’ve been to plenty of establishments featuring presidential photos on the walls, but this one was more moving than any other. The idea of a woman who was born at a time when even meeting to talk about racial equality was illegal, who then witnessed the dawn of the civil rights movement, who then lived long enough not only to see the first black president but also to serve him dinner…
It all carries far more emotional weight than Obama’s casual grin would ever suggest.