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Legendary New Orleans chef rebuilds neighborhood institution

When Hurricane Katrina struck, Leah Chase was the chef and co-owner of the legendary New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, a landmark in the city’s oldest black neighborhood. Chase saw her business, home and virtually everything she owned wash away, but resolved to start over. Louisiana Public Broadcasting has tracked Chase’s comeback for 10 years. Shauna Sanford has the story.

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  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    92-year-old Leah Chase has served up creole cuisine at her restaurant, Dooky Chase, for nearly 70 years. But 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina destroyed her livelihood.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    Nobody knew what to do. Eighty percent of the city under water, what you gonna do? Where you gonna go? What's your next move? You don't know. So, it was frightening.

  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    For decades, Dooky Chase — named after her father-in-law — was the restaurant in New Orleans' historically black Treme district, serving Po' Boy sandwiches, gumbo, greens, fried chicken and seafood.

    I went to Dooky Chase's to get something to eat.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    Ray Charles – this was Ray's place. We used to stay open 'til four in the morning, and then, you see, we'd get all the musicians when they get off.

    Lena Horne always liked her fried chicken. Sarah Vaughan was a sweetheart, and she liked stuffed crabs. Well you see, my husband was a musician, and he knew all I did was feed those people when they came through.

  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    In the segregated South, Chase's was a safe place for civil rights activists to meet.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    People came before integration, because if they had to meet with Black people, they either met in church, or they met here. You know, sometimes you can do a lot over food. In New Orleans, we do a lot over food.

  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    Katrina was the worst storm the city and Chase experienced in 40 years.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    In 1965, when we had Bessie, I saw that down there; it was terrible. But that was one section. This time, there was water all over. I had never in my life seen anything like this. Before the Hurricane came, we were working hard, really working hard. And here comes Katrina, and now overnight you have no place.

  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    Chase, her children, and her sister lost their homes. Buildings across the street from the restaurant were boarded up. Chase decided to stay and rebuild.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    But people say , 'What you going back for? What's there to do?' You know, we had to build this city back. I had nowhere else to live. Thank goodness they gave me a trailer. At least I had a place to sleep. You know, the trailer wasn't the best thing in the world but, you know I came through the Depression, honey, so you know (laughs) anything is good. I can lay my head anywhere as long as I had shelter over it.

  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    After taking on five feet of water, the restaurant closed for two years. It never crossed Chase's mind not to re-open.

    But it cost $500,000 and insurance only covered part of the tab. Donations covered the rest.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    The biggest challenge was getting this work done. I thought I could never get it done. But I had a whole lot of help. And I'm so blessed because a lot of people didn't have that help.

  • SHAUNA SANFORD:

    Most days, you can find her in the kitchen at 8 in the morning. If you have the energy, she says, you are supossed to work and make a difference.

  • LEAH CHASE:

    "You learn what's important. You learn how to live — how to live with one another. You learn how to do things when you have to do them."

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