Diners filled the front dining room at Dooky Chase’s restaurant in Treme Tuesday. Some brought flowers to honor the establishment’s matriarch, chef and Civil Rights icon Leah Chase, who passed away Saturday at age 96.
The doors opened at 11 a.m. as usual. But now customers pass by bouquets of flowers and even a basket of garden vegetables. A black wreath hangs from the side door dining room entrance.
Inside is a remembrance poster featuring the beaming smile of Leah Chase, who prepared food as sustenance of the body and soul.
Her son, Edgar Dooky Chase the Third, stood off to the side of the busy dining room, and talked about how it felt to be back at work.
“Well, I feel happy because I’m with people that my mother loves. And my mother loves a crowd of customers that are prepared to eat good food," Chase said. "We’re happy to open today, which is the Tuesday after my mother’s death. And we’re just excited to have everybody here.”
“What did it mean to you to see all those flowers out front?”
“We got flowers at my home, which is not far from here, every day," Chase replied. "The most beautiful flowers that you could imagine. I got to understand flowers as an expression of happiness and grief than I had before. But I understand the beauty of blooming, glorious, colorful flowers, smelling great and looking good.”
Chase continued to greet diners as they arrived, most opting for the buffet of Creole specialties. Many said they were regulars, but several were visitors to New Orleans who read about Mrs. Chase’s passing and wanted to show support for the family and her legacy.
Her grandson, Edgar Dooky Chase the 4th goes by “Dook” to make family gatherings less confusing.
“What happens is when we’re all in a room and there are three Dookys – now 5 – my son is the fifth," Dook says. "I had to drop the ’y’ to distinguish which one they were talking to.”
Dook is standing in the kitchen next to the table where his grandmother used to work. There’s a black wreath now in her chair. He says it’s vital that the family continue that work.
“We’re gonna keep moving and we’re going to expand our hours and grow the business and continue to do what she wanted us to do," Dook says.
“What’ll that look like?”
“We’re restoring the upstairs dining room. That dining room played a huge role in the Civil Rights Era, so now we’re bringing it back and we want to pay homage to what that did back then. So it’s going to have pictures of the Civil Rights leaders that were dining up there and be able to accommodate people and guests,” says Dook.
They plan to open it on Mrs. Chase’s birthday – January 6, 2020.
Standing off to the side waiting to speak with Dook was New Orleans chef Alon Shaya, who, along with Mrs. Chase, is a James Beard Award winner.
“She just always had great words of wisdom and advice and always made time for every single person she encountered," said Shaya. "And I would love introducing my young cooks to her because she would always take the time to sit there and really talk to them and give them advice.”
And if her own staff couldn’t remember ingredients or preparation techniques—she made sure she wrote it all down.