Friday, March 11, 2011

CHEF RENE VERDON 1924 – 2011

John F. Kennedy and Chef Rene Verdon
Affectionate Memories of le maiter cuisinier de France

The whole country took notice…
I was not quite 12 years old when the Kennedy family first moved into the White House, although I can remember very well the change in style and culture that the new administration reflected.  The whole country took notice of the glamorous First Lady and her exquisite taste in just about everything.
... the first professional White House Chef…
Particularly memorable was her extensive restoration of the White House, her fashions, her parties, the cultured entertainment AND the food.  Cuisine at the White House before the Kennedys was (by all accounts) a dismal affair.  That changed in the spring of 1961 when Mrs. Kennedy hired the first professional White House Chef, Frenchman Rene Verdon.  Chef Verdon also served as the Kennedy family’s personal chef.
… haute cuisine and Mrs. Kennedy’s flair…
It was the chef’s skills in preparing haute cuisine and Mrs. Kennedy’s flair for entertaining that helped to make French food fashionable and accessible to the American public.  Remember that it was also in 1961 that Julia Child published her first cookbook as well.  I think that it is fair to state that there would be no “foodie” culture as we see it today without the influence of these two towering personalities. 
French Cuisine was viewed as being almost unpatriotic.
American viticulture, the natural food movement, Nouvelle Cuisine by way of California, and an awakened interest in regional American products were all partially responsible as well, but I just don’t think it would have developed without the work of these two pioneers in French cooking.  It is difficult to remember that until the early 1960s, French cuisine was viewed as being almost unpatriotic.
Chef Verdon passed away February 2nd at the age of 86.
As any reader of our blog or any student in our cooking classes at La Cucina at Avanti Savoia already knows, my appreciation and admiration of Julia is limitless, but this post is about the amazing chef that was Rene Verdon.  Chef Verdon passed away February 2nd at the age of 86.  He was born in 1924 in Pouzauges, a village in the Verdee region of western France.  His family did own a bakery and pastry shop but the young Verdon aspired to be a chef and began his apprenticeship at the age of 13.  He went on to acquire numerous awards and eventually to attain the position of the most prestigious cook in the world, the White House Executive Chef.
… I wrote the famous chef a letter…
My small part of this story takes place about 30 years ago when I wrote the famous chef a letter advising him of a planned visit to his San Francisco restaurant, Le Trianon (now closed).  In the letter I expressed my hope to meet him in person and discuss his work.  A couple of months went by without any word, but I proceeded to the restaurant anyway, excited just to feast in the prestigious chef’s dinning room.  My hopes soared when I was personally greeted and seated by his wife Mme.Yvette Verdon, who was well admired in her own right as a former Director of Training in Fashion and Fragrance at the House of Chanel.
… a virtual museum of old school French cuisine.
It was even more exciting when Mme. Verdon asked me if I was the “young chef from Texas” and when I answered in the affirmative, she then informed me that “chef was very excited to have me in his restaurant and was looking forward to meeting with me.” Bliss… before I had even lifted my fork.  The furnishings of the restaurant (pink brocade and ivory walls), the haughty service, and the refined atmosphere and of course the food were in my words at the time “a virtual museum of old school French cuisine.”  In a time of Nouvelle Cuisine and California casual chic, I meant that with admiration and respect.
That first menu I remember in such vivid detail.
The first course consisted of a Mousseline of Salmon with Lobster Sauce and Pate of Pheasant with Truffle Sauce followed with cold Cream of Sorrel soup.  The main course was Veal Sweetbreads and Wild Mushrooms in Champagne Sauce.  A salad of Apples, Walnuts and Watercress in a Vinaigrette Dressing should have ended the menu in the French fashion, but Dessert…well, that’s part of the story.
… a white toqued face peering through the crack.
From time to time as the meal progressed, I noticed the kitchen door opened slightly and a white toqued face peering through the crack.  It was the man himself.  At last the Head Waiter wheeled a dessert cart up to the table and asked our pleasure.  At about the same time Chef Verdon exited the kitchen and approached the table asking very modestly if the meal had been to my satisfaction.  Although I knew well that I was in the presence of living history, Chef Verdon’s quiet and unassuming manner instantly set me at ease.
… a tour of their kitchen.
I stammered something about it being the best meal that I had ever eaten and asked his advice about a choice of dessert.  The chef turned to the Head Waiter and rather offhandedly instructed him to serve me some of everything, “on the house.”  I’m sure that I managed to have a few bites of each, although the joy of the desserts faded in comparisons with what came next.  The chef and Mme. Verdon joined me for coffee, a long chat and then (wonder of wonders) invited me on a tour of their kitchen. 
The running joke was my pathetic French.
Following the extensive tour and a bit of Cognac, Chef Verdon then said the words that certainly changed my career. He stated, “Joseph, when I see you come in the door I know I must be your teacher!” Would I be available to work with him in his kitchen in an informal apprenticeship?  In my shocked disbelief I answered that nothing could keep me from it and so it was.  Each day I would arrive at work the chef would escort me to different station performing different tasks and instruct his chefs to “teach Chef Joseph everything that you know.”  The running joke was my pathetic French.  The entire staff relished coaxing me into mumbling a phrase or two after which they would have to brace themselves against the stoves laughing hysterically.  I didn’t mind a bit, I was training in the kitchen of a culinary legend. 
… the chefs toasted my initiation.
On my very first day a very embarrassing event occurred.  I was asked to prepare sliced leeks on an old fashioned mandolin, a very sharp piece of equipment that had long before lost its protective guard.  Within the first few minutes I had managed to take off most of the skin off my knuckles.  I quickly wrapped a towel around my hand to try to hide the damage as my heart sank in humiliation.  The chef almost instantly appeared at my side, ripped off the towel and held my injured hand aloft.  Before I could even react he announced to the entire kitchen, “Joseph has cut himself.  He is now a part of our kitchen!”  To the cheers of my coworkers, out came a couple bottles of champagne and the chefs toasted my initiation.   
… a drink and a chat.
So many experiences stand out in my memory.  On numerous afternoons, Chef Verdon would invite me to the bar for a drink and a chat.  A drink for him was one “Kir”(French Aperitif of Chablis and Cassis) which he polished off in one or two gulps and a chat often meant him sharing reminisces with me about his time in the White House.  When he found that I had catered extensively with Mrs. Lyndon Johnson, her family and other former members of the Johnson administration he could not resist sharing the reasons for his leaving the White House in 1965.
… the subtleties of haute cuisine…
The relationship was simply not a good fit.  President Johnson’s tastes were primarily confined to the Ranch cuisine of Texas and the subtleties of haute cuisine were not of interest to him. Rene Verdon never uttered an unkind word about the former President and only expressed admiration for the gracious manner of Mrs. Johnson.  He did however relate a story illustrating the difficulties of the situation.
… his time in the White House kitchen was coming to an end.
At one of the new President’s first State Dinners, Chef Verdon prepared his version of Beef Wellington.  Beef Wellington is beef tenderloin with a layer of d’uxelles’ of mushrooms (containing diced goose livers) and baked in a wrapping of pastry.  Upon having his first bite, the President got a bit of the goose liver and decided that the unfamiliar taste and texture was a sign of spoilage.  Apparently he leapt out of his chair and announced to the rest of the room, “Don’t eat the meat… its gone bad.”  It was at this point that Chef Verdon realized that his time in the White House kitchen was coming to an end.

Au revoir et merci, Chef Rene Verdon

1 comment:

Gary Elgin said...

Although I have been constantly enternained as well as entranced by so many of Chef's personal stories, over the years,... I think I love this one most of all. Probably because of the passion with which he recounts it. Chef Rene Verdon has had a tremendous influence on you, Chef. Your affection for he & his wife, as well as their art is evident! Cheers!