You have not heard from Deep Fried Diaries for a bit as our work took us away for a little while, but we are “frying up” the stories again with some guest writers this summer! Read along as Lillie Kuhn takes us on a journey of two talents that helped make New Orleans, New Orleans.
Recently, New Orleans lost two legends, but gained two angels to look over its community. Chef Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine, and Dr. John, the Nite Tripper, both passed away leaving a mark on our city far beyond their memories and talents.
James Beard Award-Winning Chef, Leah Chase, has been thought of as a revolutionary, an artist, and a culinary genius for decades, regardless of whether or not one had the chance to personally meet her. Born in 1923, Chase lived through some testing times in our beautiful and eclectic city and first began cooking in 1946. Her career took off at the Treme-Lafitte neighborhood staple Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where she transformed the restaurant into a legendary institution and fed important leaders straight from her kitchen as Executive Chef.
During the 1960s, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant was one of the only public places in New Orleans where people could meet to talk strategy during the local Civil Rights Movement, and she fed everyone who walked through her door. She often said, “In my dining room, we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.” Chase fed Civil Rights leaders, musicians, athletes, and Presidents. She fed generations of families and tourists, and it did not matter who you were or where you were from because she sure knew how to make you feel right at home. If you were looking for a dish filled to the brim with New Orleans soul food, no one could prepare a more soulful one than Chef Leah Chase.
She was an artist in the kitchen and on canvas, known for her collection of art on the walls of her restaurant and was at one time considered among New Orleans’ best collection of African American art. She published several cookbooks and was the inspiration for Disney’s “Princess and the Frog,” the first ever African-American princess in a Disney movie.
Malcolm John Rebennack, known as Dr. John, transformed the sound of New Orleans from a young age. The six-time Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, began his musical career as a songwriter and guitarist in the 1950s. He played with all kinds of artists, but began his calling by playing in clubs and recording studios on Bourbon Street after dropping out of high school. After his fame exploded, he played keyboards for Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and many more. Dr. John was a star and resembled New Orleans in his demeanor, music, and fashion.
Similar to Chef Leah Chase, Dr. John lived during the segregation of New Orleans and recalls the beautiful connection of music between a white man and black man even in the most difficult times. He, like many other artists during the time, searched for a way to find unifying bond between people and learned quickly that music provided the instant remedy. It was not until later in his career that he took on his “Dr. John, the Nite Tripper” persona, a borrowed name from a 19th-century voodoo priest, which he fully developed in his 1968 album “Gris-Gris.”
Dr. John performed with numerous talented artists, created New Orleans’ anthems like “Iko Iko” and “Tipitina”, and was an inspiration to all. Chef David Guas, Owner of Bayou Bakery, had the chance of working with Dr. John personally during the filming of a documentary. “I was sitting in this West Virginia opera house filming a documentary with Dr. John and still to this day I pinch myself. Feeling blessed and honored to have spent an hour or so in a tiny kitchen just listening to his stories,”Guas remembers.
Both Chef Leah Chase and Dr. John were iconic ambassadors of the Crescent City. They were the ones who put the spice in the city’s gumbo of eclectic characters, rich customs, and historic contributions. Their soulfulness will live forever through tastes and sounds deeply rooted in the traditions of New Orleans.