By Ann Maloney
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, September 20, 2017 —
In mid-July, chef Leah Chase, 94, sat down to watch herself in the long-awaited documentary, “Leah Chase: The Queen of Creole Cuisine.” The private screening was the first time the much-filmed and -interviewed chef and social activist had ever watched herself onscreen.
Chase, surrounded by family and a few close friends and supporters in the WLAE-TV [New Orleans Public Television ]offices on Howard Avenue, took in the film that tells the story of her youth in Madisonville, the creation Dooky Chase’s restaurant, her family’s Civil Rights activism and her role today as a matriarch of the Crescent City’s dining scene.
The years-in-the-making documentary by Bess Carrick will air Sunday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. on WLAE-TV. It will replay that same night at 8:30 p.m.
More than a few in the small audience last summer were deeply affected as the documentary screened.
“It’s hard to watch,” said a visibly moved Jim Dotson, LAE Productions vice president and general manager. “I’ve seen it several times and the end gets me.”
And, after the screening, Chase said she was grateful for the way her husband, Edgar ‘Dooky’ Chase Jr., who died in 2016, was portrayed in the documentary.
“Dooky was really my life,” she said. “We were married 70 years.”
Her husband would have made music his life, she said, but family obligations and her ambitions for the restaurant took him in another direction.
She said he sometimes thought she was never satisfied because she always wanted to push to do everything just a bit better than she did before, but Chase said that’s how she views the world: “You’re supposed to make things better for the world — every day that you live.”
The couple turned a family sandwich shop in Treme into the world-renowned restaurant that has hosted a who’s who of New Orleans as well as U.S. presidents and celebrities, and served as a meeting place for Civil Rights activism in New Orleans.
Chase continues to run the restaurant. On any morning, she might be found peeling potatoes in the kitchen or sharing a meal with an admirer in the dining room.
The documentary, from WLAE-TV, Blackbird Media and LAE Productions, features by commentary from chefs John Folse and John Besh, restaurateur Ella Brennan as well as activists Sybil Morial and Rudy Lombard, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Among those at the July screening were John and Donna Cummings, who hosted the first annual Nellie Murray Feast on Oct. 7 at their Metairie home. That event honored Chase and raised the rest of the money needed to complete the Carrick’s documentary.
The event was named for Murray, a celebrated female, African-American 19th century chef and caterer, who, after the Civil War, traveled the world, was chef de cuisine for the Louisiana Mansion Club during the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition in Chicago, introducing people outside of New Orleans to the city’s cuisine for, perhaps, the first time.
A kick-off brunch for the second annual Nellie Murray Feast, which will honor another person who has had profound impact on the New Orleans’ culinary scene, is slated for fall, with a two-year strategic plan in development, said Zella Palmer, chair of the Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture at Dillard University. A portion of money raised through the feasts will go to the Ray Charles program a well.
On Thursday (Sept. 28), an invitation-only screening of the Chase documentary will be held at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. The screening was organized to thank longtime supports and sponsors of the film. Organizers wanted to open the screening to all, but due to space restrictions could not.