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A real-life 'Princess' talks fat, segregation -- and shares a recipe for gumbo

March 19, 2010 | 10:50 am

Picnik collage Leah Chase’s philosophy is simple and delicious: “I always say we solve the problems of the world right here in this dining room over a bowl of gumbo.”

The 87-year-old Chase is a chef, author and TV personality nicknamed the Queen of Creole Cuisine whose popular New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase has served up fried chicken, jambalaya and gumbo for more than 50 years. She's also the real-life inspiration for the Disney animated film "The Princess and the Frog," which arrives on DVD this week.

During the 1960s, Dooky Chase was a gathering place for members of the civil rights movement. Celebrities also have flocked to her restaurant. Even President Obama has dropped by. “I served him gumbo, and the first thing Mr. Obama did was put hot sauce in my gumbo. I said, ‘Mr. Obama, you don’t put hot sauce in my gumbo.' ”

John Musker and Ron Clements, who directed “The Princess and the Frog” -- a fairy tale set in 1920s New Orleans about a waitress who dreams of opening her own restaurant -- visited Dooky Chase when they were doing research for the film. They were immediately smitten. “The indomitable Leah Chase, who rose from waitress to owner and operator (with husband Dooky) ... was our inspiration for Tiana,” said the filmmakers in a statement. “We spent a wonderful evening with Leah at her restaurant, where we enjoyed not only her mouthwatering Creole cuisine, but her warmth as a she shared the story of her life and her philosophy of food bringing people together. She is one of America’s great ladies.”

As you might imagine, the restaurant is more than just a restaurant. After it was destroyed during flooding from Hurricane Katrina, the community came together and held fundraisers for the rebuilding. She reopened the restaurant two years ago -- but is only serving lunch. (More on that below.) 

Before the lunch crowd was about to descend on Dooky Chase, the imitable Chase chatted on the phone about her favorite subject — food.

Q: So what did you think of “Princess and the Frog”?

Leah Chase: I thought it was so beautiful, and everybody who knows me says I can see you in the character.

Q: I’ve caught you right before lunch.

LC: Yes. We do a lunch buffet today. We have fried chicken, jambalaya, smothered pork chops and greens, string beans and whatever.

Q: Are your lunches always served buffet-style?

LC: I hate it, but it is. I don’t like buffets. I rather you order what you want and I serve it nice on a plate for you. I like that better.

Q: So why do you do buffet?

LC: For the lunch customer, it is a quick thing. They can come in and we give them a cup of soup first and then they can go to the line leisurely or if they have a short time, they can get there in a hurry. The food is already prepared. It is better for lunch people because they get choices for one thing. We also have tuna salad, potato salad.

Q: Do you plan to eventually reopen for dinner?

LC: I am trying to open for dinner. Dinner is what I truly love. I wish I could serve breakfast and dinner. It is hard to do breakfast when you come against McDonald’s. I like leisurely breakfast. I am trying to do dinner ... I need more staff. I can produce this food between my grandson and me, but I need more staff.

Q: You married your husband in 1945 and his family owned the restaurant.

LC: My mother-in-law, she was a dynamo here. She was very unique. It is marvelous what she did here with no restaurant knowledge at all. She knew how to reach that bottom line. She knew how to make money, and she was a good cook. I worked in the French Quarter from 1942-45. I was a waitress. I loved waiting tables. I always wanted my own restaurant. Then I got married to Dooky. He had a big band then.

Q: Though there was segregation in New Orleans, I read that both blacks and whites ate at Dooky Chase.

LC: We had a strange place here. It was absolutely illegal for whites and blacks to eat together outside or entertain together. It sounds funny now. It was the law then and we just did it. But for some uncanny reason we always had whites come here. For political reasons this was the only place besides the churches they could meet with black people. If you were running for something and you were white and wanted to talk to black people, they would come here.

Q: How did the restaurant get to become a hangout for those in the civil rights movement in the 1960s?

LC: We were trying to integrate things through the NAACP. It was too slow and young people come with all kind of ideas. That is the good thing about young people — they have vision. They have very little to lose. So they would meet here and plan all of that over gumbo and fried chicken.

Q: Speaking of gumbo and fried chicken, are your patrons worried about cholesterol these days eating such heavy foods?

LC: No. People eat what they have to eat and then back off the next meal. That’s what you should do in life. For instance, growing up, we didn’t have fried chicken every day. We ate it only on Sunday so you would look forward to Sunday. You didn’t eat baked macaroni in the middle of the week — you would eat greens, rice and string beans, so you looked forward to Sunday when you had all the fancy extras. You got to do things in moderation.

Q: So I gather no one has asked you about cutting out trans fats?

LC: I go to the grocery, and if I see no fats on the label, I leave it on the shelf. I don’t know what the devil they did to take the fat out.

-- Susan King

Dooky Chase's Creole Gumbo

Note: This recipe has not been tested by The Times' Test Kitchen. Recipe from Chef Leah Chase

Ingredients

4 hard-shell crabs
1/2 pound chicken necks
1/2 pound smoked sausage
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 pound chicken gizzard
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons flour
6 chicken wings
1/2 pound Creole hot sausage
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound boneless veal stew meat
1 pound shrimp
1 cup chopped onion
24 oysters in their liquid
4 quarts water
1 1/2 pounds smoked ham
1 tablespoon file powder

Directions:

Place crabs, sausage cut into bite-sized pieces, stew meat and gizzards in a 6-quart pot over medium heat. Cover and let cook in own fat and juices for 30 minutes. Heat oil in skillet and add flour to make roux. Stir constantly until very brown. Lower heat, add onion and cook over low heat until onions wilt. Pour onion mixture over meat in pot. Slowly add water, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil. Add chicken wings cut in half, necks skinned and cut, ham cubed, shrimp peeled and deveined, paprika, salt, garlic, parsley and thyme. Let simmer for 30 minutes. Add oysters and liquid and cook for 10 more minutes. Remove from heat. Add file powder and stir well. Serve over rice.

Photo and Image : Walt Disney Co.

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