My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2016
Leah Chase is always spoken of with reverence, respect and awe. People will tell you Leah Chase is an icon.
Those who know her say that beneath her zeal for manners, for propriety, for procedure, is a thoughtful lady. They also understand that she’s a force of nature wearing a wrap-around smile and a chef’s jacket.
When she married Dooky Chase in 1946 and began working at his family’s restaurant, she discovered that she would rather cook than prepare drinks. After many years working in the Dooky Chase kitchen, she eventually converted the menu to her own treasured Creole recipes. “I don’t like to tend bar,” she says, probably because it means standing in one place too long. “No, no, no. But I’ll bring you a drink. A good mixologist is as important as a chef.”
“Virgie Castle, activist Oretha Castle Haley’s mother, was our bartender for 42 years. Virgie didn’t want to be called a bartender; she wanted to be called a barmaid. She loved to play the horses, and she knew every drink by heart. Tom Collins, Planter’s Punch. We’d see a new cocktail and say, ‘Show it to Virgie.’”
Back then, liquor was sold by the half-pint with a mixer on the side. Guests would order their half-pint and a mixer, and ask for dressed ice. Dressed? Dressed ice?
“Dressed meant a bucket of ice served with lemon slices and cherries for the customer to add to their drink,” Chase remembers. “One couple would come in every day. They would order a half pint of Schenley whiskey with dressed ice, mixing their cocktails and talking all day.”
Leah Chase broke the city’s segregation laws decades ago by serving both white and black customers, including civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall, after the 1954 landmark ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education. “People would meet upstairs over drinks and a meal. They never got drunk, just sipped.”
Overindulging is as inappropriate as arriving at her restaurant improperly dressed. When civil rights workers would come in disheveled, she sent them down the street to a friend’s house for a shower and clean clothes before dinner. Gentlemen back then were not allowed to wear a hat indoors; they still are not at Dooky Chase’s.
The Queen of Creole Cuisine had her first drink — similar to the European tradition — when she was about three years old, sipped at her parent’s table in Madisonville, Louisiana. “It was a glass of water or a cold drink with some sugar and a tablespoon of wine,” she remembers. “A little more wine was added to the glass as you got older, until finally you had a full glass of wine.”
“My daddy made the best strawberry wine. It was clear as crystal, aged right. Delicious. And we had cherry bounce. At Christmas, we’d have his cherry bounce in a little glass.”
“During prohibition, whenever a stranger drove around, everyone was frightened and dumped their home brew. In the country, they didn’t understand that you could make liquor for yourself, but it was against the law to sell it. So they were afraid and would throw it away, fast. My daddy would never throw his out. We drank it. There’s a winery, Amato’s in Independence, that makes a strawberry wine now, almost as good. They sell it at Rouses.”
Coming to New Orleans from the country to attend high school, Leah soon began her 70-year career in the restaurant business. One of her first jobs was at the Colonial Restaurant in the French Quarter. There, she embraced the notion of accommodating guests. “The Colonial didn’t have a liquor license, so if a customer wanted a drink we’d go across the street to the back door of Victor’s, get the drink and bring it back,” she says.
Dooky Chase’s now has a handsome bar to the left of the art-filled dining room. Following the restaurant’s extensive Hurricane Katrina devastation, it was rebuilt with the support of the restaurant community — the estimate to rebuild the old bar was far too high for the restaurant’s budget. Chef John Folse, a longtime friend, found a generous contributor and had the bar built for Chase. There, surrounded by framed photographs of other friends, celebrities and jazz musicians, she still enjoys a drink. “I ask my grandchildren to give my Sprite some color, add some Crown Royal.” Just like at her parent’s table 90 years ago.
She created this cocktail to toast Disney’s 2009 movie The Princess and the Frog. Chase served as part of the inspiration for Tiana, an African-American girl who dreams of opening the finest restaurant in New Orleans.
Asked if the recipe was a secret, she laughed. “I don’t have any secrets,” she says.
It’s sunshine in a glass, perfect for a New Orleans summer.
Recipe: Hoppin’ Frog
- Juice of two lemons
- 1 teaspoon of simple syrup
- 6 ounces of water
- 1 ounce of limoncello
- Fresh mint and a lemon curl for garnish
Fill a glass with crushed ice. Combine water, lemon juice and simple syrup. Taste to adjust sweetness. Add limoncello and garnish. Serves one.