When Rene Verdon became the first professional chef to work in the White House, in 1961, dining with the president was given an early 1800s spin: Outside caterers were replaced by an in-house operation that harked back to Thomas Jefferson’s day.
Suddenly, French food was fashionable, thanks to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s wish to entertain on a grand scale and Verdon’s ability to deliver memorable chicken in champagne sauce and what Time magazine described as an “incomparable quenelles de brochet.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Rene Verdon: In the Feb. 10 LATExtra section, the obituary of Rene Verdon, who in 1961 became the first professional chef to work in the White House, included a photo caption that gave an incorrect name for the restaurant he later opened in San Francisco. It was Le Trianon, as the article noted, not La Trianon. —
Decades before it was chic, Verdon planned White House meals around the freshest ingredients he could find. He planted an herb garden and designed a new kitchen for the first family’s quarters, since he broke another tradition by also serving as President Kennedy’s private chef.
Although Verdon stayed at the White House after President Johnson arrived, his culinary marriage with a president whose tastes leaned toward spareribs and chili was doomed. A request for “cold chick pea soup,” which Verdon considered “already bad hot,” sent the chef over the edge. He quit in protest in late 1965.
Verdon, who later opened the noted restaurant Le Trianon in San Francisco, died Feb. 2 of leukemia at a hospice in San Francisco, said his wife, Yvette. He was 86.
Most previous presidents had a housekeeper charged with putting food on the table, so the Kennedys’ decision to bring in a French chef “struck a different note entirely,” said Barbara Haber, a food historian.
“This was the ‘60s, way before America awakened to the possibilities that food held,” she said. “Jackie Kennedy brought glamour to the White House, and Verdon represented in terms of cuisine what that glamour was all about.”
He made his first official meal for a presidential luncheon honoring then-British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in April 1961. The menu included beef filet au jus and artichoke bottoms Beaucaire, filled with a fondue of tomatoes simmered in butter.
American chef Julia Child, who gets most of the credit for launching the nation’s enduring affair with French food, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2002 that she was “lucky” the Kennedys hired Verdon because soon “everyone was interested in French cuisine.”
Rene Girard Verdon was born June 29, 1924, in Pouzauges, a village in western France where his parents owned a bakery and pastry shop.
One older brother was a pastry chef and the other was a baker. At 13, Verdon announced that he wanted to be a chef.
He soon was an apprentice at a hotel in Nantes, France, and later worked in several fine Paris restaurants.
In 1958, he traveled to New York City aboard a luxury liner, working in its kitchen and then at the perfectionist Carlyle Hotel. When the Kennedys were looking for a chef, another New York restaurant suggested Verdon.
Jacqueline Kennedy interviewed him in French, Verdon later said. After he was hired, the White House made it known that his salary came from the president’s personal funds.
Verdon’s favorite state dinner that he oversaw, according to the New York Times in 2009, honored the president of Pakistan in July 1961 at Mount Vernon, 16 miles south of the White House on the Potomac River.
The setting was a historic break with tradition, with guests arriving by yacht and being served “simple yet elegant” food that included avocado, crab meat cocktails, and raspberries in Chantilly cream for dessert.
President Kennedy favored Verdon’s New England clam chowder, and the chef would make popcorn snacks for the young Kennedy children.
“They always treated me like I was a member of the family,” Verdon told The Times in 1974. “I had my own seat on Air Force One.”
Among his five cookbooks are “The White House Chef” (1967), “French Cooking for the American Table” (1974) and “The Enlightened Cuisine” (1985).
While appearing on the “Today” show, he met Yvette, a former director of the House of Chanel, and they married in 1969.
From 1972 to 1987, the Verdons operated a restaurant, Le Trianon, that was considered among San Francisco’s finest.
When it opened, Jacqueline Kennedy sent a telegram that said, “We envy San Francisco for having you there,” according to a personal history by Verdon.
But it was “a multitude of handwritten thank-you notes from Mrs. Kennedy” after big White House occasions, he later wrote, that he kept “like a treasure.”
In addition to Yvette, his wife of 41 years, he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, Kathleen Pineau of Paris; a brother, Alfred, of Brive, France; and a grandson.
Services will be held at 12:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church, 2390 Bush St., San Francisco.