Can you imagine working your entire life, surviving one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history, rebuilding your business, and then learning you’ve inspired a character in a Disney film?
Meet Leah Chase, an 87-year-old New Orleans chef and restaurateur, whose life helped inform the character of Tiana in Disney’s film The Princess and the Frog. I had the great fortune of eating lunch at Dooky Chase, Ms. Chase’s art-filled restaurant, two years ago, and memories of her fried chicken, red beans and rice, and macaroni and cheese left a delicious, indelible mark. Speaking with her about the animated film, which will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 16, proved equally delightful.
“This movie makes you feel good,” she said of Disney’s first film featuring an African- American princess. Ms. Chase has 16 grown grandchildren and just as many great grandchildren, with two more on the way. “The little ones,” she said, and I could almost hear her smiling into the phone, “are just so overwhelmed by the movie.” One, she said, even commented, “’Grandmother, I didn’t know you were a princess!’”
Chase also contributed to Tiana’s Cookbook for Kids, which contains her recipe for Jammin’ Jambalaya.
Anyone fortunate enough to be in New Orleans should make a point of stopping in to Dooky Chase for a meal. Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, business hours have shrunk to lunch-only, but Chase hopes eventually to resume dinner service. At the moment, she and her niece do all the cooking, and one of her grandsons helps with plating. According to Ms. Chase, one of the restaurant’s biggest days is Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, when she prepares Gumbo Z’Herbes, a green gumbo with sausage, ham, beef, and nine types of greens. As of last week, Chase had booked 105 lunch reservations for that day alone.
“When I see these little girls say, ‘I want to be a cook,” she says, “it’s the cutest thing you ever saw.”
Disney’s “little” movie, she adds, has “done so much for our city.”
Cheryl Sternman Rule is a widely-published food writer and the voice behind the blog 5 Second Rule.