When I first ate at Dooky Chase’s in the 80s, I was sure it was the best gumbo in town. And very few people argued with me. Which is strange because arguing about the best gumbo is a national pastime in this food-centric city-state. And the only way to win the argument is by default with the ‘I don’t care what you say, no one does it better than my maw maw” gambit.
But Leah Chase and her remarkable restaurant have earned that kind of respect in the local imagination, where one may not feel a need to invoke the grandmother ruse because the food is that good. And Leah is that revered here. More than a chef, she has ascended to icon status as entrepreneur, local leader and, not for nothing, a great mom to a fantastic singer who shares her name.
The New Orleans Museum of Art’s current featured exhibit on view through Sept. 9, 2012 is a painting series of our own culinary goddess by local painter Gustave Blache III. Each image, composed in situ as she leans over some intense recipe, with trademark pink baseball cap on top of her head, frankly makes me hungry.
But beyond the typical self-loving images New Orleanians appreciate, Blache’s portraits capture a couple of other ideas that are often overlooked when considering Chase’s achievements. First off, there are images of guests enjoying their meal in the restaurant, and behind them, on the walls, are significant local artworks by African American artists. Dooky Chase’s Restaurant had these sorts of works on the walls years before it became some sort of interior designer’s posture – it’s well known this restaurant was an enclave for activists and civic leaders all the way back to the 60s. They weren’t just hanging stuff up for attitude, Dooky Chase’s is a legitimate art gallery with a socially aware voice.
Additionally, and in some ways more moving, the images that will be on display at NOMA capture how much work is involved in creating something worthwhile. In the backgrounds there are stacks of pans, veggies needing prep, bread ready to be soaked in egg and brown sugar (and I’m sure some other secret stuff) for bread pudding and Leah Chase did it, and still does it at the age of 90. One of these portraits, “Cutting Squash,” has already been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.
One other thing to consider about her lifelong contribution is that this host to presidents, kings, celebrities, and (ahem) me, is not just a random example of New Orleans cooking. Leah Chase’s culinary art is exactly what the world thinks of when it thinks of the cuisine here.