Fried chicken is like a religion to some folks; everyone has their own denomination, favorite house of worship, and everyone thinks they’re right. The orthodox, the reformed, and more than a few fundamentalists make up these “churches,” which dot the landscape of the United States — especially the South — like missionaries’ crosses.
Willie Mae’s Scotch House, in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, is one of these priories of poultry, considered by many to have the best fried chicken anywhere. It is also a running joke between me and my wife, as it’s closed every time I go.
Thus, it was almost comical when I received the text from my friend Amy saying “Willie Mae’s is closed. We are going to Dooky Chase,” five minutes before we were to meet there for lunch.
Although slightly disappointed, I couldn’t help but think this was a net positive, as both Willie Mae’s and Dooky Chase were closed on my last visit — fried chicken love unrequited.
And make no mistake about it, I love fried chicken. I am an acolyte. A true believer. Versed in the lore and the legend, armed with my own secret recipe, and familiar with the great practitioners as if players on trading cards. And Leah Chase is a great practitioner. I am not sure if Dooky Chase’s reputation for fried chicken is as well known outside of New Orleans as is Willie Mae’s, but Miss Leah Chase — Chef Leah Chase — is an ambassador of Creole cooking. She taught Julia Child to cook Creole, hosted several US Presidents at Dooky Chase, and is renowned for both her fried chicken and gumbo z’herbes.
Leah Chase is also a hero of mine, personally. She is a rock. She never abandoned the Tremé, or New Orleans, and she never lost hope, even after Katrina. While it would have been much easier to close the flood-damaged Dooky Chase, to walk away, that’s not what Leah Chase, well into her 80’s, did. That’s not who she is. Instead, she fought, with a vigor not possessed by people half her age, to save Dooky Chase… to save New Orleans.
I wanted to tell her all of the above about two and a half months prior, when I sat a table away from her at Crescent Pie and Sausage Company, but I didn’t have the guts to approach her. She was eating with her family. I didn’t want to be that guy. So I just sat there dumbstruck eating my black-eyed pea jambalaya with the hope that someday I would see her again.
Which brings me back to fried chicken, the cosmic force which led me down this path in the first place, the path which led to Dooky Chase, the unassuming one story brick building at 2301 Orleans Avenue.
We pulled up in front. My friend Rich, a fellow chef, lifelong New Orleans’ resident, and a Dooky Chase neophyte, like myself, was driving. We were meeting Amy, the Girlfriend of a my wife’s girlfriend, a Lt. Colonel in the Marines — who became a fast friend the first time we downed Abita Ambers at Razoo’s.
We walked in to find Amy accompanied by a crew of hungry Marines, anonymous in their civvies, with only their close-cropped hair giving any indication of their vocation. The small vestibule before the main dining room had a watercolor painting of Leah Chase cooking with Tiana from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog;” they were making, not coincidentally, gumbo. As I later found out, Chef Leah was the inspiration for Tiana, and I wish Disney had called the character Leah.
After hugs and handshakes were exchanged, we were brought into a bright yellow dining room, just off the main room, where they had a table big enough to accommodate our party of seven. Like the crimson colored main dining room, the walls were decorated with beautiful paintings, African-American works of art which were nearly lost in Katrina. And the tables had beautiful saffron linen tablecloths, which may not seem like a big deal, unless you realize that back when Leah Chase started running Dooky Chase, black-owned establishments didn’t have elegant touches like tablecloths, as such niceties were only for white-owned restaurants.
Then it dawns on you that you are not really in a restaurant at all — oh yes, sure, they serve food — damn good food and lots of it. But so do a lot of places. No, not a restaurant, but one woman’s living testament to the strength of her own will and the courage of her own convictions; where Civil Rights leaders found resolve over bowls of gumbo and plates of greens, chicken, and that delectable smoked sausage; a place that broke down racial and gender barriers — a restaurant owned by a black woman where whites and blacks ate *together* and still do. A place that nearly drown, but didn’t, and helped carry a city back from the dead.
I didn’t think about any of this at the time, but if I had, I probably would have realized that women like Leah Chase made it possible for women like my friend Amy to be who they are. I am pretty sure neither one of them has ever taken no for an answer.
But unlike Amy, Leah can fry chicken, too.
We all opted for the buffet that day, which included corn and crab bisque, smothered pork chops, smoked sausage, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, stewed mustard greens, and of course, fried chicken. And I ate all of it. Twice. I ate four hungry Marines under the table. I would have gone back a third time if shame and the promise of peach cobbler didn’t stop me.
It was as that peach cobbler was settling that I took occasion to look into the main dining room, and right into the eyes of Chef Leah. I smiled. It was an invitation. I hoped she would accept. And she did, slowly ambling in, supported lightly by a silver cane which it looked like she could toss aside at any time. She wore a pumpkin colored chef’s coat with her name above the breast pocket, and looked twenty-five years younger than her 89.
Standing next to me, she asked “Where y’all from.” We dutifully went around the table, and when she got to my friend Rich, I got nervous. I hadn’t had my turn yet, and Rich could talk forever. Thankfully, he gave me an opening when he said we were both chefs, at which Miss Leah feigned embarrassment, as if she would have somehow cooked better had she only known we were coming.
I have to admit, I don’t really remember what I said, outside of stammering my name and asking her if she would mind taking a picture with me.
What I remember is hearing her speak. She spoke to us for fifteen minutes or so, on topics ranging from politics to pop up restaurants. She spoke enthusiastically about New Orleans’ young people — their energy and vitality — and unlike so many others, did so optimistically. She never talked about problems so much as opportunities and solutions. Only once did she express anything approaching sorrow, recounting how Entergy and the demands of parenthood had stolen her grandson, Edgar “Dooky” Chase IV, from her full-time employ; she then laughingly blamed her great granddaughter for the loss of her chef.
Family is a recurring theme at Dooky Chase. It’s Leah Chase’s family in the kitchen, the dining room, and at the door. It’s Leah, the matriarch, greeting, cajoling, tasting, and spinning tales. And when you eat there, you too are family, whether you’re a sitting president, a lesbian Marine Lt. Colonel from Indiana, a Jewish chef from New Orleans, or a white wannabe Cajun from the swamps of New Jersey. Because that’s the way Miss Leah sees it. She understands differences, but sees unity, and has been around long enough to know we’re all in this together.
And she made me want in, too. Want to help. Want to be part of her family. I haven’t stepped into a restaurant kitchen in a year; during that time I wondered if I ever would again. But if Chef Leah asked me, I’d do it for free.
During the course of our conversation, I let her know I was moving to New Orleans, and she said to me “If there is anything — anything at all — I can do to help you, you can find me right here.” I believe her. She has a generosity of spirit that far exceeds anything I’ve ever known. You taste it in the food. You feel it in the dining room. You see it in her eyes. Truth. Just like her fried chicken.
Which, I suppose, if you’ve hung around this long, you’ll want to know how that fried chicken is?
Until Willie Mae Seaton and her great-grandaughter Kerry tell me something different, it is the best I’ve ever had…