August 15, 2014

A Culinary Tour of New Orleans

A Culinary Tour of New Orleans
My kids in the kitchen with Chef Leah Chase!

A culinary tour of New Orleans?

Yes. That’s what I called my plan for my son’s 15th birthday, which was on Wednesday.

“We are going on a culinary tour of New Orleans,” I announced to the family. There were no complaints.

Let me tell you the inspiration behind this plan.

You see, as The Catholic Foodie, I am frequently in New Orleans covering food-related events and interviewing chefs for radio and print, so I get to see lots of fancy restaurants and kitchens. It’s not that my kids don’t get to dine in nice restaurants. They do. They are foodies, after all. They just don’t get to visit them as frequently as I do.

As my son’s birthday approached, I wanted to plan a fun day for the whole family to celebrate. And it just so happened that the previous Wednesday I had interviewed Chef Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant for the Around the Table Food Show that is broadcasted on Friday afternoons at 3:30 Central on Catholic Community Radio.

I have admired Mrs. Leah Chase from afar for a long time. A faithful Catholic, a chef, and woman of grace and great wisdom… that was Leah Chase to me. But I had never met her… until Wednesday of last week.

And it was such a delight to meet Mrs. Leah and to interview her for the radio! She had three dishes brought out for me and my co-hosts (Msgr. Christopher Nalty and David Dawson) to sample: Shrimp Clemenceau, Creole Gumbo and Chicken Creole. Wow! It was wonderful!

The radio show is only 30 minutes long, which was not long enough when you have an excellent guest like Mrs. Leah Chase. Msgr. Nalty had to leave right away for a funeral, but Dave and I had the awesome pleasure of sitting at the table with Mrs. Leah and talking food, faith, and family for another hour and 15 minutes. What a blessing!

Jeff Young The Catholic Foodie with Chef Leah Chase
Me and Chef Leah Chase

I left that day thinking that I had to bring my family back there soon to dine and, hopefully, to meet Mrs. Leah.

And that was the inspiration behind my idea of a culinary tour of New Orleans.

For lunch we dined on classic Creole fare at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. We started off with a cup of the Soup of the Day, which was a Chicken Tortilla Soup, and a Romaine salad. Once our plates were served, you would have found these Creole delicacies on our table: Red Beans & Rice with Vaucresson Sausage, Chicken Livers, Collard Greens, Smothered Okra with Tomatoes, Chicken Grillades, Jambalaya, and Fried Chicken. For dessert we were treated to homemade Peach Cobbler. Words just can’t describe…

An assortment of Creole classics at Dooky Chase
A full plate of classic Creole cooking at Dooky Chase's Restaurant!

My son Christopher had 2 scoops of ice cream on his Peach Cobbler since it was his birthday. Our waiter Omar thanked us for coming. He said, “You had 1366 places you could have gone to celebrate your birthday today in the city, but you came here. And we thank you so much for that.”

Classy. Just like Mrs. Leah.

And speaking of Mrs. Leah, we got to go into the kitchen and visit with her after lunch. As usual, she was such a delight. She asked the kids how old they were, and then she told them her age. She said, “I’m 91 and a half.”

If you don’t know much about Leah Chase, you can find out more by scrolling down on this page. I’ve included her bio here. Leah Chase was the inspiration behind the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog. She has cooked for presidents and dignitaries from across the world, and Dooky Chase’s Restaurant played a major role in the dismantling of segregation in the south.

By the way, you can hear the interview we did with Mrs. Leah Chase sometime in September. Catholic Community Radio is gearing up to debut its new lineup, and we are saving the show with Leah Chase for that debut. I’ll keep you updated on the date it will broadcast.

Who Is Leah Chase?

Known as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” Leah Chase has fed Quincy Jones, Jesse Jackson, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, James Baldwin, Ray Charles, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and countless others as Executive Chef of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant — one of the best-known and most culturally significant restaurants in New Orleans. Leah Chase has more recently served as the inspiration for Princess Tiana in Disney’s Princess and the Frog.

Born on January 6, 1923 in New Orleans, Chase was one of 14 children. She was raised in the small town of Madisonville, LA. There were no high schools for black children, so after sixth grade, Chase moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt. After completing high school, Chase had a colorful work history including managing two amateur boxers and becoming the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Her favorite job, though, was waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was here that she developed her love for food and feeding others. 

In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose father had opened a street corner stand selling lottery tickets and his wife’s homemade po’boy sandwiches.

Eventually, Leah and Dooky Jr. took over the business, which by then had become a sit-down restaurant and a favorite local gathering place. 

In a town deeply divided by segregation, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was one of the only public places in New Orleans where mixed race groups could meet to discuss strategy for the local Civil Rights Movement. Although such gatherings were illegal through most of the 1960s, Dooky Chase’s was so popular; it would have caused a public uproar if local law enforcement had interrupted the meetings. Black voter registration campaign organizers, the NAACP, backdoor political meetings and countless others often found a home at Dooky Chase’s, and Leah cooked for them all. 

Chase is also a patron of black art and her collection — displayed on the walls of her restaurant — was at one time considered New Orleans’ best collection of African American art. To this day, she serves on the board of the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts and has even testified before Congress to lobby for greater funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. She has participated in countless political campaigns and has used her culinary talents and celebrity to raise money for a myriad of charities and services. Her cookbooks, including The Dooky Chase Cookbook, And Still I Cook, and Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This, are popular and have received great praise among her most famous colleagues.

Chase has received many awards, including multiple awards from the NAACP, the New Orleans Times-Picayune 1997 Loving Cup Award, the Weiss Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the Outstanding Woman Award from the National Council of Negro Women. Chase was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America in 2010. She was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2000. Chase received honorary degrees from Tulane University, Dillard University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, Loyola University New Orleans, and Johnson & Wales University. She is also the recipient of the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, the highest award presented to an individual by Xavier University of Louisiana. The medal is not presented annually. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana named a permanent gallery in Chase’s honor in 2009. She also serves on many boards, including the Arts Council of New Orleans, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Urban League. She is member of the Women of The Storm and the International Women’s Forum. She has four children, sixteen grandchildren and twenty-two great-grandchildren. 

Many are attracted to her warmth and mastery of culinary arts, that to this day still excite the minds of those she serves. Ray Charles sang about her, and National and International Presidents have sought her out, but in all her ability to excite the palates of Leaders she has remained steadfast in her ministry to all.

More Stops on the Culinary Tour..

I admit that we started off the day with the highlight, but the rest of the day did not disappoint either.

We also took a tour of Chef Emeril Lagasse’s Homebase (and his test kitchen). We spent about 2 hours enthralled with all the amazing art and antiques tucked away in M.S. Rau Antiques on Royal Street. Then we trekked across the city to Carrollton Avenue to visit Ye Olde College Inn and to get a tour of their garden. By the way, not only does their garden provide fresh produce, herbs and chicken for their restaurant throughout the year, but Ye Olde College Inn also supplies other restaurants in the city with fresh produce and herbs. Talk about farm to table!

So you see, it was definitely a culinary tour of New Orleans. But, as we drove home smiling, we mused that we’ll have to do this again. After all, there are over 1366 restaurants in the city.

How many have you been to? Which ones are your favorites? Tell me in the comments below. We might have to make those our destination on our next culinary tour!