Sunday February 6, 2011
From Sophie Brickman, San Francisco Chronicle: Rene Verdon, a chef for the Kennedy White House and later a San Francisco restaurateur who played a profound role in introducing French cuisine to America, died Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 86.
The cause of death was not disclosed.
Before first lady Jacqueline Kennedy recruited Mr. Verdon to become the White House executive chef in 1961, cooking duties were split between middling caterers and a handful of chefs. Not so under Mr. Verdon, who had worked his way up from the carrot-peeling trenches in France.
He supplied young Caroline with freshly baked cookies, educated President John F. Kennedy on the proper way to prepare steak (finish each grilled piece with a brush of melted butter) and organized elaborate state dinners.
Kennedy biographer Laurence Leamer credits Jacqueline Kennedy and Mr. Verdon for the Kennedy administration's cultural impact on a country that previously regarded foreign food as unpatriotic.
"Whenever we sit down for dinner now anywhere in America," he said, "we should thank her and chef (Verdon) because that's part of her legacy, increasing the sophistication around food."
Mr. Verdon stayed in the White House for two years after the president's assassination, resigning in 1966 in what Time Magazine referred to at the time as a "Gallic huff," because President Lyndon Johnson and the first lady "insisted on budget-paring barbarities such as frozen vegetables." Mr. Verdon was an advocate of cooking with local and seasonal ingredients - decades before current first lady Michelle Obama started a White House garden - and this was too much for his French soul to bear.
Mr. Verdon moved to San Francisco, where he met his future wife, Yvette, the former director of the House of Chanel, on a TV sound stage in 1969. In 1972, they opened the high-end French-Californian restaurant Le Trianon on O'Farrell Street.
It received rave reviews, and Mrs. Kennedy sent Mr. Verdon a congratulatory telegram: "We envy San Francisco for having you there." Le Trianon had a 15-year run, and even in its last year of operation The Chronicle reported, "This is fancy cooking at its best."
Mr. Verdon was born June 29, 1924, in the French provinces and began his culinary career as an apprentice in Nantes before World War II, working 15 hours a day, six days a week for five years. He wrote in "The Enlightened Cuisine" (Macmillan, 1985), one of his five books, that this hands-on, tough-love kitchen work was a far better education than spending a year in a coddling culinary school.
"When I was an apprentice, I mixed a fish sauce with a meat sauce, for which I received a kick in the derrière," he wrote. "The memory of this has stayed with me to the extent that I always taste a sauce first before mixing it into another saucepan."
In the past few years, Mr. Verdon often joined a group of other Bay Area French chefs for a monthly meal, a few bottles of wine, some catching up, some reminiscing.
Roland Passot, chef-owner of La Folie in San Francisco and a member of the informal group, called Mr. Verdon "a spiritual father."
Hubert Keller, chef-owner of Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar, felt a similar affinity, calling him "the ambassador of French cuisine in America."
Keller recalls being a young chef when Mr. Verdon first invited him over to his house in San Francisco years ago.
"We started looking at the cookbooks in his office, and you could tell they were not just there to fill the shelves," he said. "The books were marked up, all these pages with markings on them. And I thought, 'Rene Verdon really lives and breathes cooking.' It was clear he loved his work, and he was an inspiration."
Mr. Verdon is survived by his wife, Yvette of San Francisco. Funeral arrangements are pending.