- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Leah Chase is standing in the middle of her world-renowned restaurant, embracing a prized possession. I don’t mean one of the magnificent paintings in her extensive collection, which make Dooky Chase’s Restaurant an art gallery as well as a temple to Creole cuisine.

The treasure she is cradling is a Hobart professional-grade stand mixer, the color of cafe au lait. Sidelined since the evacuation in August, the Hobart had been wedged in like a puzzle piece among stacks of enormous pots, pans and bowls, all corralled atop the wall of stoves in the restaurant’s now quiet main kitchen.

Mrs. Chase cradles this hunk of metal with affection and pride, pausing for a moment’s reflection on a busy morning of getting Dooky Chase’s back in business. “I bought this in 1954, and it’s still working just fine,” she says, carrying it into the dish-washing area.

Mrs. Chase’s sister, Adonicia Lange Dawson, is at the sink, gloved hands in soapy water, where she has spent the morning plowing through stacks of dishes — lots of dishes — that just today have been unearthed to be hand washed, dried, stacked and stored in the back stockroom during renovation.

They’ll need a trip through the dishwasher before returning to service, but this hands-on task makes a good first step, nudging the chaos of Hurricane Katrina into past-tense, where everyone would like it to be, and bringing Dooky Chase’s present more into focus.

The restaurant is a beehive on this breezy, sun-drenched Friday afternoon, in this beautiful and remarkable city that is trying desperately to mend itself. A dozen eager volunteers from around the country have joined Mrs. Chase and her family.

I am here to help bring this landmark restaurant back to life. In a restoration project co-sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Heritage Conservation Network, fellow volunteers and I have come to New Orleans over the course of five weekends to lend a hand with the tasks facing restaurants inundated by Hurricane Katrina flooding.

We began our workday at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a small neighborhood cafe two blocks away. There, Willie Mae Seaton, 89, has a reputation for putting out the most delicious fried chicken on Earth.

While several of my fellow volunteers break up concrete floors with jackhammers, a crew of us walks over to Dooky Chase’s to help Mrs. Chase, the octogenarian dynamo in jeans and baseball cap, cross a thing or two off her long to-do list.

We haul huge free-standing shelves and stainless-steel worktables out into the parking lot for a scrub up and hose down. We then drag them into a cavernous back storage room, where they are ready to hold salvageable items while cleaning and major renovations take place.

We gather white linen tablecloths from the main dining room to send to the laundry. We stack handsome upholstered chairs near a rear door, to be placed in a portable storage unit while the floors get a new finish.

A fellow volunteer stops in midstep, toting a chair across the room. “You know who sat in these chairs?” Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, James Baldwin, Freedom Riders traveling through New Orleans, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Dizzy Gillespie and Julia Child.

An upstairs dining room is crammed with handsome Victorian furniture and a grand piano, hoisted up beyond waters’ reach. A small office, also high and dry, is stacked with framed certificates, photographs and gold-embossed documents. There are dozens of awards and certificates of recognition from organizations at local, national and international levels.

We are not alone with Mrs. Chase. In fact, we are surrounded by Chase family members, including siblings, children, grandchildren and one great-grandson. Many of them work at the restaurant and all are involved in restoring Dooky Chase’s to a place of honor in the culinary and business worlds.

Daughter Stella Chase Reese works alongside her mother, pointing us toward new tasks when a job is complete. Son Edgar “Dooky” III checks in from his office at Dillard University, a few miles away. Dillard is another institution working to recover from Katrina’s devastation. Another daughter, Leah Chase Kamata, a celebrated jazz vocalist, is out rehearsing for her performance that night in the Carousel Room of the Hotel Monteleone.

Seeing the Chase family pitching in with humor and strength, you would not realize that all the members of this family lost their homes. They commute from temporary accommodations in the surrounding area. For now, Mrs. Chase lives and works out of a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, set up across from the restaurant in this historic Creole and black neighborhood known as Faubourg Treme.

Back in the storage room, we pass stacks of plates and platters down a short assembly line, moving them carefully from shelf to sink. “Now why do I have all these plates?” asks Mrs. Chase. “I ought to be like all those other chefs, with nothing but great big white plates and that’s it.” She smiles, shaking her head. “I’ve got all these different plates in different colors … ,” marveling at the possessions the tides of life have deposited at their door.

She has a good collection: a stack of salad plates in a deep rich persimmon shade, oval platters with an ivory finish, a set of square celadon plates with a raised design. “I might have eight people for lunch, and I’d give them a little salad on this one,” she says, passing us a charming set of yellow plates hand painted with a fruit motif.

Then comes a set of blue and white dinner plates, along with matching wine glasses trimmed in cobalt blue. “Those are for Dillard,” she says. Son Edgar tells me later that the university holds its annual faculty luncheon at the restaurant each spring, and for the event his mother sets the tables in Dillard’s colors, blue and white.

Touched by this dynamic woman’s affection for beauty, I comment that she is taking care of her guests just as people do at home, bringing out the china and crystal on special occasions.

“This is my home,” she declares, with an enormous smile. “I’ve put 60 years into this place. I raised my children, sent them to good schools, made this place work. This is my home.”

Hearing Mrs. Chase say these words, I can almost hear that little Hobart mixer humming into action, catch the aroma of her signature gumbo des herbes simmering on the stove and imagine her reaching into a fired-up oven to pull out a big pan of Creole bread pudding.

I can see this place cooking again, buzzing with happy guests, aglow with art on the walls, fabulous food coming out of the kitchen and every table set with flowers and an array of beautiful plates.

I can see the city of New Orleans doing the same … all in good time and with a little help from some friends.

Chicken and shrimp Creole

This recipe was adapted from “Leah Chase: Listen, I Say Like This,” by Carol Allen (Pelican). Serve it over buttered rice so you don’t miss a drop of Mrs. Chase’s gorgeous and tasty sauce. For the classic version, add 12 small whole okra pods to the sauce along with the chicken, and cook until tender.

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast

1½ teaspoons salt, divided

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ chopped onion

1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper

1 cup canned whole tomatoes, with liquid

Water 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

½ teaspoon ground thyme, or 2 springs fresh thyme

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

8 ounces medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Cooked white rice or crusty bread

Cut chicken into big, bite-size chunks (about 1 inch in diameter). Sprinkle chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and all of the pepper, and toss to season it evenly.

In a large saucepan or a heavy Dutch oven, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat until a bit of onion sizzles at once. Carefully add seasoned chicken and cook until golden brown on one side, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn to brown the other side, and then scoop chicken out onto a plate and set aside.

Add onion to pan and cook until softened and shiny, 1 to 2 minutes. Add green pepper, stir and cook for another 2 minutes. Add whole tomatoes, mashing with a spatula or large spoon to break them up as they cook in the onion mixture.

Add 1 cup water, garlic, thyme, cayenne pepper and remaining salt. Increase heat to high, and bring to a gentle boil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes more, stirring often. Lower heat to medium, and add the chicken to sauce. Cook 5 to 7 minutes, boiling gently, until sauce has thickened and chicken is cooked through. Add shrimp and cook 3 to 4 minutes more, turning once, until shrimp are pink and cooked through. Stir in parsley, remove from heat and serve hot or warm over rice or with crusty bread for dipping in the sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Dooky Chase potato soup

This recipe is adapted from “The Dooky Chase Cookbook” (Pelican). Mrs. Chase serves this satisfying, completely vegetarian soup with warm garlic bread. You will need about 4 cups of peeled and chopped potatoes, cut into big chunks.

1½ pounds potatoes

Water

1/4 cup finely chopped onions

1/4 cup finely chopped celery

2 tablespoons finely chopped green bell pepper

1/4 cup finely chopped scallion

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, or 2 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 to 2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Warm garlic bread

Peel potatoes and cut into 2-inch chunks. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, combine 6 cups water, potatoes, onion, celery and green pepper. Bring to a hard boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a lively simmer and cook 25 to 30 minutes, or until potatoes are very soft. Potatoes should begin to break up.

Once potatoes are soft, take a wire whisk or potato masher and cream the potatoes in the water. Mixture will look thin but will thicken during additional cooking. (Mrs. Chase likes the mixture to be a little lumpy.)

Add scallion, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, garlic, salt, thyme and cayenne pepper. Stir well and cook 15 to 20 minutes more. Stir in butter or margarine and remove from heat. Garnish with remaining parsley. Serve hot with warm garlic bread. Makes 6 servings.

Leah Chase’s old-fashioned bread pudding

This recipe was adapted from “The Dooky Chase Cookbook,” a delicious volume generously seasoned with Mrs. Chase’s reminiscences and wisdom and adorned with color reproductions of artworks from her collection.

Butter or oil for greasing pan

1 loaf stale po’ boy bread, or 5 cups cubed stale white bread (see note)

2 12-ounce cans evaporated milk (3 cups)

Water

6 beaten eggs

1 cup crushed pineapple (an 8-ounce can), undrained

1 large apple, grated or finely chopped (see note)

1 cup raisins

1½ cups sugar

5 teaspoons vanilla (yes, five teaspoons)

1/4 cup butter

Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Set aside.

In a bowl, break bread and moisten with evaporated milk and 1 cup water. Pour eggs over mixture and mix well. Add pineapple, apple, raisins, sugar and vanilla, and mix well. Cut butter into pieces and add to mixture, mixing all ingredients well. Pour into greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the edges are nicely browned and firm and center is set (a knife should come out clean), but not dry. Place the pan in a wire cooling rack, or on folded kitchen towels. Serve warm, or at room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Makes 10 to 20 servings.

Notes: If you don’t have stale bread, place about 10 slices of white bread directly on the racks of a warm oven and heat them for 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire cooling rack or cookie sheet to cool completely, turning once or twice. Cut into cubes and make your pudding.

To grate the apple, cut it in half and cut out the core and stems. Grate large pieces of apple on the large holes of a box grater, or on the shredding disk of a food processor. Or cut the apple into thin slices and chop it finely.

Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill, N.C., is author of “Quick and Easy Vietnamese: 70 Everyday Recipes” (Chronicle Books).

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