Once there was a place called Camelot…..
Do you remember the grace and pride we all once felt when Washington sparkled with style? It was a grand time, full of hope and youth.
This past week Chef Rene Verdon, who with the admired Jacqueline Kennedy crafted that re-birth of elegance, passed away at 86 in his San Francisco home. Prior to his (and Jackie’s) arrival in White House kitchen, a vague array of chefs and caterers had created years of less than impressive presidential cuisine.
But when the elegant Jacqueline Kennedy swept into the White House, all that changed. Beginning in 1961 (was it really that long along?), Chef Verdon instituted classic French discipline and techniques into the kitchen. And the results showed.
State dinners were no longer dull gray diplomatic gatherings but became glittering social events with fine wines matched to gourmet selections. Indeed in the years prior to the Kennedy era, White House dinners were so bad that foreign diplomats traditionally ate before coming to presidential dinners.
And though some Americans were concerned about the “foreign influence”, Chef Verdon proudly stated that he was merely continuing the tradition of enjoying the best just as President Jefferson had done 200 plus years before.
Chef Verdon’s influence spread far and wide, creating a wave of interest and appreciation for the amazing but nearly forgotten world of French cuisine in America. His success at the White House made it easier for diners to ‘think French’ when they made a reservation.
Americans even began to visit France more frequently to see first hand the wonders of French cuisine. And, of course, there was Julia Child making it all seem so easy and so much fun.
Sadly, for many of us, the ease and wonder of those days ended with the crack of a rifle bullet shattering the nation’s heart one dark day in Dallas.
Jackie, dressed in a widow’s black dress, left the White House, but Chef Verdon stayed to help the nation continue. But one president is not like another one.
Chef Vernon found he could not accept the more casual culinary standards of the Johnsons and so he left, preferring the supportive atmosphere of San Francisco where he mentored generation after generation of American chefs in all things French.
And now he, too, has left us. One can only imagine that Jackie and Jack will greet him on arrival in heaven with a deep smile and warm hug and tell him, “Well done, good friend – great chef.”
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011