Bayou Chef Is a Muse Too

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in: People

On a balmy April evening, an exhibit of new oil paintings by young New Orleans artist, Gus Blache III opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). Culinary icon Leah Chase served as the artist’s muse in Blache’s depiction of a behind-the-scenes look at the everyday life at Chase’s Dooky Chase restaurant.

The opening gala brought in more than $100,000 dedicated to an endowment in Chase’s name for the acquisition of African-American art for the museum’s permanent collection. Chase, of course, insisted on preparing all the food for the 800 guests herself. This exhibit will remain on display at NOMA through Sept. 9. Fittingly, one of the paintings will then travel to Washington, D.C., to become part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

Chase entered a museum for the first time in 1975 when one of her regular restaurant customers, Celestine Cook, took her to NOMA. Cook was the first African-American trustee of the museum, and by 1977 Chase joined her on the board. Simultaneously, she began transforming Dooky Chase Restaurant into a gallery as well as a dining establishment, often trading food for art from budding local artists.

A dedicated patron of the arts

By 1994, her advocacy in the art world was so renowned that the Association of Art Museum Directors asked Chase to speak on their behalf before the congressional committee that had proposed drastic cuts the National Endowment for the Arts. Chase testified: “My life experience provides evidence that refutes the allegation that federal money for the arts benefits only higher-income people … For me, support for the arts is an investment in the artistic excellence of my people … who, like me, need to see something beautiful and breathtaking in order to aspire to higher things.”

Leah Chase exhibit at NOMA

You can view the New Orleans Museum of Art's Leah Chase exhibit online here.

The NEA survives today in part because of Chase’s testimony, quite an accomplishment for a woman who began life as one of 11 children on a Depression Era strawberry farm.

Once her four small children were in school in the late 1950s, Leah went to work at Dooky Chase restaurant, which had its humble beginnings in 1941 operating from the front of her in-laws’ shotgun house in New Orleans’ 5th Ward.

From the start, she had lofty ambitions for the lowly sandwich shop. In those days of segregation, there were no fine dining establishments for African-Americans. Chase dreamed of a place where “her people” could eat off of china and silver from tables set with white linen. Gradually, Chase realized those dreams, and Dooky Chase became the place to dine. There, she quietly fed a revolution.

The segregation laws not only forbade black people to eat in white restaurants, but the reverse was also true. Leah shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess I broke the law.” In the secluded upstairs private dining room of Dooky Chase, white and black integrationists sat down and worked through peaceable solutions that changed the world, all fueled by bowls of Chase’s gumbo.

From restaurant walls to the National Portrait Gallery

Blache’s first great stroke of luck occurred when Chase, then an octogenarian, granted him access to her kitchen and restaurant, taking a chance on his young artist’s vision. His talent combined with more good fortune when Susan Taylor, director of NOMA, and Miranda Lash, curator of modern and contemporary art, viewed Dooky Chase’s collection. The pair decided that an exhibition of these works would be the perfect way to honor Chase in her 90thyear.

A walk through the exhibit is like paying a visit to Chase at her restaurant. With gallery walls painted the same deep red as the restaurant kitchen, the stage is set. Upon entering, you find a table laid with white linen cloth and are invited to sit in Dooky Chase Restaurant chairs.

A transcript of Leah’s words recalling childhood memories from Depression days is there for museum-goers to consider: “When you went to the grocery you bought basic things you needed. And the flour would come in white sacks that you would wash out, wash all the lettering on the sides until it became as white as snow. And then your mother made you a tablecloth out of it and you embroidered it. But you see, you learned to do all that kind of thing and … you didn’t waste anything.”

Thus engaged, visitors share their own memories, writing in pencil on a guest check to be left behind in a silver bowl on the table. When I visited last, someone had written “Peacemakers [an old New Orleans name for a fried oyster sandwich], were 75 cents at the time. After a night out, my dad would bring one home for mom made on pan bread with pickles and butter.”

The paintings offer a tiny peek at very private moments at Dooky Chase, things you might see if allowed a glimpse into Chase’s life there. In a lavender baseball cap and simple white apron, she chops vegetables, stirs pots that simmer on her stove and stands rinsing bowls in the sink. We see Chase in her dining room dressed in her brightly colored chef’s jacket visiting with her customers.

Chase said: “For me, I love it. For me, I see my customer and that is my lifeline. That makes me feel good. I like my restaurant to feel like home to people.”

The image that will become part of the National Portrait Gallery collection shows her in a contemplative moment in the Dooky Chase kitchen. She stands, simply cutting up yellow squash. It’s a quiet image, a personal look at a woman whose legacy comes from a lifetime of serving a dose of wisdom and love in each bowl of her gumbo.

 


Zester Daily contributor Poppy Tooker is an author, culinary teacher and host of the weekly NPR radio show “Louisiana Eats.” The New Orleans native is a frequent guest on The Food Network and the History Channel and the author of “The Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook.”

Image: Leah Chase, as painted by Gus Blache III. Credit: Gus Blache III

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