The pompano and the duck on Dooky Chase’s menu harkens to an era that few of the restaurant’s contemporary customers are apt to remember. Over the years, changing times, changing clientele, and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina have all played a role creating a menu more focused on Creole classics than the fancier dishes that chef Leah Chase took such pride in serving when she assumed the restaurant’s helm in the 1950s. But thanks in large part to Chase’s many grandchildren, Dooky Chase’s is getting its old style and swagger back.
“The phrase we love to use is ‘continuing that legacy,’” says 39-year-old executive chef Edgar “Dooky” Chase IV. “It really was going back to what Dooky Chase’s has been doing for the last eighty years and revisiting some of the items that were on the menu in the past that came off,” he says. While Chase is the fourth family member to share his name and nickname, he’s just the third person in the restaurant’s eighty-year history to serve as executive chef. Only his grandmother and great grandmother have preceded him.
Dooky Chase’s Elevated Origins
Leah Lange Chase married bandleader Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. in 1946 and in so doing, married into a business more focused on selling po boy sandwiches than upscale Creole cuisine. But as a young chef, Leah Chase had a vision of creating a fine-dining destination for Black customers during the segregation era when Black patrons were barred from the white restaurants where they often cooked the food.
Over the years, Dooky Chase’s became the go-to place for Black entertainers, civil rights leaders, and ordinary New Orleanians. But the late-night place where musicians like Ray Charles and Duke Ellington could get a good meal in the wee hours after a gig, started limiting its service to a weekday lunch buffet in recent decades. It still included the gumbo, red beans and rice recipe, fried chicken, and fried catfish those luminaries enjoyed. On the dinner menu, they share the stage with dishes like shrimp Clemenceau, oysters Norman, and veal grillades.
A Look at Dooky Chase’s Today
The three surviving children of Leah and Dooky Chase Jr.— Stella, Leah, and Edgar III—made careers in education and music rather than in the family business. In recent years, the Chase children and grandchildren have taken up positions at the restaurant, determined to return it to its former glory.
Much of what Dooky IV learned, he says he learned by cooking—and making mistakes—at his grandmother’s side. “Her palate was so amazing. If I made a dish, she knew where I mis-stepped. ‘You didn’t have enough roux, or enough filé. Next time this is what you can do to correct it,’” Chase recalls. In addition to that hands-on training, he also did a six-month intensive at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, as well as a master’s degree in business administration.
Similarly, his cousins Tracie Haydel Griffen, 48, and Eve Marie Haydel, 40, returned to work in the family business after extensive time and training in other fields.
On a lark, Haydel, a certified accountant, took a two-week bartending course and soon found herself enthralled with mixology and the domain of her late grandfather, who ran the bar at Dooky Chase’s. He died in 2016, at the age of 88. Leah Chase died in 2019 at 96.
Preserving the Family Legacy
“After my grandmother passed, I was driving back home to Atlanta,” Haydel recalls. “I didn’t make it as far as Mobile. I could not drive any farther. I said ‘I’m going the wrong way. I don’t want to live in Atlanta anymore.’” She now serves as the restaurant’s bar manager, creating new cocktails and updating the old recipes. Dooky Chase, Jr. was relatively quiet and unassuming compared to his wife, who was the face of the restaurant throughout the city and around the country. But he was a definitive presence in the bar.
“I wanted in some way to make sure my grandfather’s legacy was still there in the space he held,” she says.
Haydel and Griffen are the children of Emily, the Chase’s older daughter, who died in 1990. It was Griffen who spearheaded the creation of the Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr. and Leah Chase Family Foundation to honor and extend the family legacy.
“When we were celebrating my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday, we wanted to be sure that my grandparents knew how much we appreciated their work, and we wanted them to know that it would continue,” Griffen says. These days she runs the restaurant’s front of house operations.
“The Chase family are just the caretakers of the property,” she says. “The restaurant means so much to the community that it is the community’s more than it is the Chase family’s restaurant.”
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I don’t know if I will ever get to New Orleans but if I do, I will head straight for Dooky’s. I don’t know how I heard about the restaurant but my mouth watered when I heard some of the menu items on offer such as the shrimp creole, red beans and rice and many others. I would also like to meet Grandma. She seems like a lovely person and still so energetic and engaged.
I live way up in Canada and have difficulty with mobility but if I ever have the means to visit New Orleans, I sure will.