Restaurateur gives back on birthday

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase celebrated her 90th birthday Friday with a luncheon at her venerable establishment Dooky Chase.  Here Chase, right, visits with friend Dr. Karen Becnel-Moore during the luncheon.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase celebrated her 90th birthday Friday with a luncheon at her venerable establishment Dooky Chase. Here Chase, right, visits with friend Dr. Karen Becnel-Moore during the luncheon.

The only way restaurateur Leah Chase would let her family make a big to-do about her 90th birthday was if it incorporated an aspect of giving back to the community, granddaughter Tracie Griffin said.

So before they could plan the three-day celebration that kicked off Friday, Griffin said, the family set up a foundation in honor of Leah and her husband, Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. The funds raised during the birthday events will provide the seed money for the foundation.

Chase called it “hoopla” but said she was happy as long as it all inspired people to get involved in the community.

“They both have lived a tremendous life of giving,” Griffin said. “You can’t honor her without doing something for other people.”

Griffin said the foundation will support endeavors directly related to the couple’s passions and values, including education, social justice, food, music and art.

On Friday, close to 450 people dined at three separate seatings at Dooky Chase’s restaurant. Leah and Dooky Chase sat at the back of the restaurant and engaged guests in moderated conversations about faith, family, music, art, community and civic involvement.

On the buffet were a number of Chase’s favorites, including Creole gumbo, cauliflower soup, chiffonade salad, lima beans with shrimp, cornbread dressing, Vaucresson chaurice, and her “all-time favorite,” meatballs and spaghetti.

“Food is everything,” Griffin said. “She puts herself into her food. When you eat it and enjoy it — that’s her gift to people. You can taste, touch, and feel her passion and love through her food.

The family’s restaurant on Orleans Avenue was opened by Edgar Chase Jr.’s father in 1945, the first “Dooky.” Leah Chase said the fourth generation of Dooky’s was in the kitchen as chef, and a fifth was on the way.

Overwhelmed with RSVPs for Friday, Griffin said there was a scramble to rearrange furniture in order to accommodate all the guests.

Local dignitaries and celebrities filled the tables alongside family, neighbors and Leah Chase’s devoted and numerous friends and well-wishers.

Waiting in line for the buffet, friends Janith Voluy and Beverly Gilmore said they had known Leah Chase for their entire lives and grew up with her children. They said they eat at the restaurant regularly and had been dining there since were young, after proms, and during a time when it was the only place African Americans could go for fine dining. They described Chase as a beautiful person and a pillar of the community. “Nobody is a stranger to her,” Gilmore said.

Saturday night, a gala at the Hyatt will feature a four-course dinner menu prepared by some of the city’s top chefs, including a Creole alligator soup by John Besh, a salad course from Susan Spicer, John Currence’s Louisiana Gulf Red Grouper Court Bouillon and a chocolate Doberge cake by John Folse.

On Friday, Griffin said more than 650 people had made reservations for the gala.

Griffin said on Sunday, Chase’s actual birthday, the family will go to church and then culminate the weekend with a private party for 200 close friends and family.

Her grandparents can dance a beautiful waltz, and also love the jitterbug, which was their very first dance together when they met in the 1940s, Griffin said.

One of 10 siblings and mother of three, grandmother of 16, and great-grandmother of 22 (and counting), Chase’s family alone is no small presence.

Growing up, Griffin said Chase was a loving and nurturing grandmother but also stern and continues to hold each family member accountable for their actions.

“No matter how much you accomplish, if you haven’t told her how you helped someone else at the end of the day, you are in big trouble,” Griffin said.

As Chase waited for the discussion to begin at the first lunch event Friday, her biggest concern was making sure everyone had food and that everything was going okay in the kitchen.

Sitting down at a table, friend Sylvia Denson said the food was delicious and that she wouldn’t think of missing the event. “She is a warm soul,” Denson said of Chase. Denson said that when others ask her if Chase still works in the kitchen, she tells them: “Absolutely—she wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Chase said she was grateful for all the people who attended, and she was excited about the foundation’s potential to help educate children.

“It’s about learning how to live and how to appreciate life — and make a better city to live in.”

When asked to talk about when the couple first met, Leah Chase described herself in her younger years. “He thought he got a prize — poor darling. He got stuck with me, and I boss him around.”

Her husband responded, “If I had to have a prize, I couldn’t ask for a better one.”