Once small nugget of advice from famed chef Leah Chase shaped Damion Banks’ entire career.
“Continue the art of simplicity and you will go farther and farther in the culinary field,” the Queen of Creole Cuisine told Banks.
Since his first encounter with Chase about 15 years ago, Banks has worked to express himself creatively while also striving to keep it simple, just as Chase told him.
Banks was one of many chefs across the country mourning the death of Chase, who died June 1 at age 96 and is scheduled to be buried Monday in New Orleans.
Before Chase became known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, she worked as a waitress in the French Quarter. In 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a local musician. His father, Dooky Chase Sr., had opened a bar and sandwich shop in the Treme neighborhood. Eventually, Chase and her husband transformed the location into a dine-in restaurant. Besides serving locals and celebrities, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant often served as a meeting place for politicians and civil rights leaders, and was one of the few places where the races mixed and dined together.
Chase received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016. In the past week, mourners took to the streets to celebrate Chase’s life and legacy with a traditional New Orleans second line complete with brass bands and banners to let passersby know whom they were honoring. Many former patrons, including former President Barack Obama, used social media to express their condolences.
What a life. American history has always been driven by visionaries like Leah Chase—and all the men and women who worked and ate at Dooky Chase’s over the years—folks who serve up progress one bowl of gumbo at a time. https://t.co/2LpuIbxvHk pic.twitter.com/Y4i5snKjn7
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 3, 2019
The loss was especially tough for chefs who have followed Chase’s career and were inspired by her exceptional culinary skills.
“It’s hard,” said Banks, 46. “It’s not just that she was a local legend that we lost. It’s like family that was lost. She reminded me so much of my grandmother that I actually cried when I heard [the news of her death]. I feel like I lost my grandmother twice.”
Banks never took for granted the occasional moments he shared with Chase over the years. Each time, she offered a few words of advice that Banks added to his daily life as a chef.
Banks began his career with a summer job washing dishes in the kitchen of Austin Leslie, another world-renowned chef of Creole cuisine. Banks’ uncle, who was the sous chef for Leslie at the time, wondered whether Banks should stick to art, rather than food. Instead of being deterred, Banks was determined to prove his uncle wrong.
Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, Banks appeared several times with Chase at multi-chef events around the city, including a dinner for then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Both of them were also featured in a PBS documentary highlighting five black New Orleans chefs that was originally scheduled to air right before the storm hit.
As busy as Chase’s life remained, she was never too busy. He would re-introduce himself to Chase and each time, she’d already known who he was.
“She was always available to talk,” Banks said. “Even at her restaurant. It always felt great when she remembered me. I know I felt special, but that’s how she made everyone feel. She treated everyone the same. We were all VIPs. No matter who Mrs. Chase talked to, she always made you feel loved.”
In 2011, years after Banks earned his position as executive chef at the now-closed Olivier’s Creole Restaurant in New Orleans, Chase and her family would drop by for dinner. Although Banks had come far in his culinary journey, including cooking for celebrities and international figures, the knowledge that Chase was in his dining room waiting patiently for one of his creations to be served still made him nervous.
Banks still remembers the first time she came to the restaurant and the entree he prepared for her: Roasted duck breast with a raspberry plum coulis, roasted asparagus, and dauphinoise chips.
“I remember she was tasting all the food and sampling everything and I was somewhat scared because this is a local legend,” Banks said. “I was doing Creole food and I wanted it to be impressive to her but I didn’t want to go too much over. But she enjoyed it. She was very impressed with it.”
In one of their last encounters, Banks shared the news that he was starting his own business, Beauchamps Catering. And he knew exactly what he’d envisioned for the new company.
“I keep it simple, but at the same time, I love art,” Banks said. “I keep the art of simplicity, but I like for people to see my food and eat with their eyes. If I explain it, if I write my menu down, everything that you read in the descriptions, you’ll be able to taste everything that I’ve explained to you.”
In that chat, Chase left Banks with one last gem.
“I give a lot of effort because I’m allergic to failure,” Banks said. “I’m destroyed by it, but it’s also growth. Mrs. Chase told me to always work hard. Give all the effort that I could. No matter what I did, if I had that, I’d always be successful. It was the truth.”
That was Leah Chase, practicing the art of simplicity.