Rene Verdon was born in 1924 in Pouzuges, in the Vendee region of France. His father was a baker and owned the family bakery & pastry shop, and with his two brothers, one a baker and the other a patissier, is where he got his inspiration to be a chef. At age 13, in 1937, he began his three year apprenticeship in Nantes, then another two years training as a pastry chef. At age 21 after World War II, he worked at Le Berkeley in Paris and at the Hotel Normandy in Deauville, France. His hands-on, tough-love kitchen work was a far better education than spending a year in a coddling culinary school, he said.
At age 34 in 1958 he emigrated to the US and worked in NYC at the Essex House, Carlyle Hotel and ultimately as sous chef at the La Caravelle under executive chef Roger Fessaguet.
In 1961, when John F Kennedy was elected, the White House kitchen duties fell to caterers and a handful of Navy stewards. Jacqueline Kennedy, on the recommendation of Chef Fessaguet, recruited Chef Verdon to deal with the high demands of luncheons after the inaguration. After a few months, Chef Rene Verdon was given a permanent position as White House Chef, and received a $10,000 per year salary and full room and board. Verdon was credited with changing the standard of food in the White House, from the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations. Jacqueline Kennedy charged him with designing and supervising the White House Kitchen.
His first commission was an informal luncheon the Kennedy’s hosted for Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco. He supplied young Caroline with freshly baked cookies and educated President JFK on the proper way to prepare steak and increasing the sophistication around food. Chef Verdon stayed in the White House for two years after the President’s assassination, resigning in 1966 in a “Gallic Huff” after a Texas food co-ordinator hired by President Johnson, began to supply the WH Kitchen with canned and frozen vegetables to keep costs down, and this was too much for his French soul to bear. Chef Verdon was an advocate of cooking with local and seasonal ingredients, decades before other chefs took up the cause. Other creative differences rose and Chef Verdon was quoted as saying of the Johnson White House “You can eat at home what you want, but you do not serve barbecued spareribs at a banquet with the ladies in white gloves”. He resigned from his post in 1966 after he was asked to prepare a cold garbanzo bean puree, a dish which he reportedly detested regardless of its temperature.
Chef Rene moved to San Francisco where he met his wife Yvette, the former director of the House of Chanel, in 1969. In 1972, they opened the high end French Californian restaurant Le Trianon. It was there that Great Chefs Television, who was producing in 1982, “Great Chefs of San Francisco”, recorded Chef Rene preparing three dishes: a Mousseline of Scallops and Salmon appetiser; Chicken with Pink and Green Peppercorns entree, and a Gateau Nancy chocolate dessert. By the time the show was aired over PBS, there was quite an uproar as to why someone like Chef Verdon would use pink peppercorns, which at the time were deemed to be bad for your health. That scare too, seem to disappear after awhile. Le Trianon had a 15 year run, and even in it’s last year of operation 1987, the SF Chronicle reported “This is fancy cooking at its best”.
Chef Rene Verdon believed that there were no completely new culinary styles, and spoke instead of evolutionary change and of the need for personal judgement. “Nouvelle is just basic, but the sauces are still there, just lighter. And the emphasis upon freshness and the vegetables are just a little more al dente, that is all”.
Toward the later years of his life, he wrote 5 books, and often joined a group of French chefs in the San Francisco area like Great Chefs Roland Passot and Hubert Keller for a monthly meal and a few bottles of wine and some catching up and reminiscing.
Chef Rene Verdon passed away on February 2, 2011 of leukemia. But we at Great Chefs will always remember two of his quotes during our filming at Le Trianon, “Food is 40 percent eyes and 60 percent taste” and “The rules for drinking wine are ridiculous. Drink red wine with fish if you want. The use of wine is a matter purely of personal taste”.