The death of Chef Rene Verdon last week quietly marks the end of an era. Verdon, who was 86 at the time of his death last Tuesday, was White House Chef in the early 60s, hired by Jackie Kennedy, who interviewed him for the position in French.
Verdon had a huge impact on me and when it comes to cooking mentors, he is probably the most important, though our styles are not at all similar. But I learned so much from his knowledge, technique and precision and from his engaging and humble warmth, which permeates his writing. While still a teenager, I bought his book, The White House Chef Cookbook, and read it from cover to cover, hungry for his warmth and the warmth of the Kennedys which shined through his stories. I can still remember, quite vividly, the first meal I cooked from the book: Lamb Kababs, with the lamb marinated in fresh lemon juice, good olive oil and fresh rosemary, which was really hard to find at the time, and threaded onto skewers with onions and mushrooms. I’ve been making a version of that recipe ever since.
Eventually, I misplaced the book and could not find another copy–it is readily available at Amazon now–but wrote about it from memory for a column in the mid 1990s. As a result of that column, a copy of the book showed up in my mailbox, with a note from a reader. I won’t misplace this copy; I treasure it and pull it off the shelf to read it from time to time.
In the summer of 2009, there was was a lot of talk about both Julia Child, who was the subject of a movie, and Ted Kennedy, who had recently died. With the two of them on my mind, it wasn’t long before I found myself thinking again about Rene Verdon and his book. You can read that column here. Sadly, I did not realize he was still alive. But he was, alive and living in San Francisco, where he had operated Le Trianon for a decade and a half. Such were the realities of single-motherhood and college that I never had the money to go to the restaurant while it was open, though I have a few menus stashed in my archives.