No one has inspired me more than Leah Chase. Nobody. When I say she’s a driving force for me, I get frustrated because that’s an understatement. I remember two weeks after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I called Ms. Leah. She was eighty-one and I was calling just to check in. How could she bounce back from this natural disaster? I was trying to be sympathetic but also trying to let her know that at eighty-one, she and her husband Dooky have had a great run—it’s okay if she wanted to put it all down.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. She said, “What do you mean what am I going to do? I am going to renovate the restaurant and open it as fast as I can.” She had another fifteen-year run after Katrina. She opened the doors of Dooky Chase’s in the 1940s, in the middle of an era when white and Black people could not be served together, yet she served everybody. She could have gone to jail for something that we now take for granted. It’s no surprise to me that many in the Civil Rights movement held meetings and made plans in her restaurants.
Brave and skilled, she was just one of these magical people, which is why she was in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video and Disney created a character inspired by her. At heart, though, she was a chef and a master at making gumbo. When President Barack Obama dropped by Dooky Chase’s, Ms. Leah gave him a bowl of gumbo, but when she saw him sprinkle hot sauce on it before he had tasted it, she smacked his hand and said, “Don’t mess up your gumbo.” She liked Obama, although she once said that presidents come and go, but it’s the regular, everyday people that really matter. She was an American hero.
At age 96, Leah passed, and New Orleans celebrated her in the only way New Orleans can: with music and food. This book is dedicated to Leah; we are all Leah’s kids. We wouldn’t be here without her.
Leah Chase Gumbo
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup diced celery
- 1/2 cup diced red onion
- 1/2 cup diced red peppers
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces ground chorizo
- 1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 12 ounces fresh okra, diced small
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon filé powder
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups fish stock
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 8 ounces smoked andouille sausage, sliced ¼ inch thick
- 6 cups cooked rice, for serving
- Chopped scallions, for serving
- Chopped fresh parsley, for serving
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven set over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the celery, onion, peppers, garlic, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chorizo and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the tomatoes, okra, paprika, filé powder and cayenne and continue cooking for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the stocks and vinegar and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. The filé powder, which is made by grinding sassafras leaves, will thicken the stew.
- Add the shrimp and andouille and stir to combine. Continue to cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the shrimp are just cooked through. Serve the gumbo over rice, topped with scallions and parsley.