Editor’s Note: There’s still time to get your Gumbo z’herbes for the 2022 Lenten season. Dooky Chase is offering takeout via their Facebook page here.
Holy Thursday 2020 was going to be different for Stella Chase Reese and Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, but she never anticipated how different. It was a change that, in some regards, started on Holy Thursday the year before.
“This is the first Holy Thursday since my mother passed away,” Reese said. Her mother, of course, is the legendary Chef Leah Chase. “And on a personal note, it’s one which I was dreading a little bit because it was on last Holy Thursday that I had to take my mother to the hospital. I came prepared that morning and said ‘Oh, we’re going to wear this nice bright green top for Holy Thursday, and you greet the customers,’ and I was greeted by my mother who was not doing well. So, instead of bringing her to the restaurant to greet her customers, I had to bring her to the hospital at that time.”
While the dining rooms are quiet, the kitchen is still humming along
The absence of Chef Chase’s presence in the dining room was palpable last year. And this year the Chase family and the staff knew that they had to get it right, to continue as a beacon of the community.
“It was my intention on this Holy Thursday to make our loyal customers feel so appreciated,” Reese said. “We felt that this Holy Thursday, with our customers returning, that was a vote of confidence for my family, because we knew how much my mother was loved and how many people came just for her and to enjoy the day. So it was really gratifying for myself and my family when we had so many people already booked for this year. It was a blessing from above and a sign that people had confidence in the Chase family. So we were going to make it a special Holy Thursday.”
COVID-19 changed those plans, as it has for so many, with restaurant dining rooms shuttered, customers being told to stay home, and an air of fear and uncertainty casting a shadow over the industry and the city as a whole. But Reese and the Chase family knew how important the luxurious, verdant gumbo z’herbes and perfectly fried chicken were to the city and to her mother.
Dooky Chase’s has always had a way of getting around obstacles, whether it was allowing black and white Civil Rights leaders to dine together upstairs during segregation, or cashing checks when black Americans couldn’t have bank accounts, their will to serve the community is uncompromising. But this obstacle required a different approach, which was actually a return to the restaurant’s roots.
“We had to adapt to takeout,” Reese said. “But at one time, the restaurant’s takeout was really big and it actually sustained the restaurant when dine-in wasn’t maybe as popular. The takeout was it.”
So, waitstaff moved from the floor to salaried positions doing takeout (but please tip on your takeout, it helps the staff greatly). The typically bustling gold, green and red rooms are surreally quiet, like an art gallery. Yet while the dining rooms are quiet, the kitchen is still humming along, producing a weekly takeout menu that consists of the fried chicken, red beans and rice, greens, and Creole gumbo, available each day, and a selection of daily specials and po-boys.
Gumbo z’herbes still on the menu
But the question of Holy Thursday, typically the busiest day of the year, required special planning in this new normal. The Chase family rose to the occasion.
“So what we have done,” Reese said, “Is contacted our customers who had already booked for Holy Thursday and we assured them that we will have takeout, that they will be able to eat their green gumbo, their gumbo z’herbes and get their nine new friends by eating it.”
The gumbo will be available by the quart, half-gallon or gallon, and fried chicken in four, eight or twelve pieces.
The nine new friends Reese refers to is based on the number of greens used in the Dooky Chase version of the dish. The tradition is that for each green you will meet a new friend, which because of social distancing, may have to wait until later in the year, because for the Chase family, it is safety first.
“We’ve given them times to come,” Reese explained about the logistics of takeout. “And actually a lot of our customers have preordered, and so we will have their order ready for them. We want to abide by no long lines, six feet apart. We’ll put numbers in our parking lot where people can pull up in a number and the order will come right out. We are trying to think of ways not only to keep the tradition alive and bring hope to the community but also to make sure the community is kept safe while we we honor my mom and continuing her Holy Thursday and show appreciation to our customers for being so loyal to us. So that’s what Holy Thursday is looking like for us.”
Reese also assured that anyone who wanted the Holy Thursday specialties could still place orders, but “they have to know we’re going to abide by rules and mark distances so everyone will be kept safe as well get the gumbo z’herbes.”
“We have to step up”
COVID-19 has torn through the New Orleans community and has upended our way of life. Reese herself recently lost her husband to the disease, but her impressive faith and her community has kept her afloat.
“We know that we can’t let everything be taken away from us. That we have to step up,” Reese said. “With this virus that we now have that the whole country and the whole world is experiencing, we may have to change the way we do things, but we have to let everyone know that whatever it is we’re going to be there for each other.”
This Holy Thursday, we won’t sit across from each other in the dining room of Dooky Chase’s, visiting with friends and local luminaries. Chef Leah won’t be presiding over the dining room with her characteristic charm. But we will be there for each other. Still have our gumbo z’herbes. And fried chicken. And hope.