Rene Verdon, White House chef for the Kennedys, dies at 86

Rene Verdon at New York's Carlyle Hotel, where he worked before going to the White House in 1961.
Rene Verdon at New York's Carlyle Hotel, where he worked before going to the White House in 1961.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 7:34 PM

Rene Verdon, a French-born chef who brought an air of continental sophistication to the White House under the Kennedys, and then left his post after a clash with the Johnson administration over frozen vegetables and garbanzo beans, died Feb. 2 at his home in San Francisco of undisclosed causes. He was 86.

Mr. Verdon, who later ran an acclaimed San Francisco restaurant and won admirers including Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, was perhaps most renowned for his five-year tenure at the White House.

When he arrived at the executive mansion in spring 1961, he took over a kitchen that had long been run by caterers and Navy stewards and not known for producing fine food.

That changed under Mr. Verdon - a "culinary genius," The Washington Post said, with refined tastes admired by Jacqueline Kennedy.

A veteran of some of Paris's best restaurants, Mr. Verdon championed seasonal, local food long before it became fashionable. He grew vegetables on the White House roof and herbs in the East Garden.

"I cooked everything fresh," he told the New York Times in 2009. "If the ingredients are superb, then the cooking can be, and must be, simple."

In April 1961, his White House debut - a luncheon for British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan - made the front page of the New York Times.

Mr. Verdon served trout cooked in Chablis, roast fillet of beef au jus and artichoke bottoms Beaucaire. Dessert was a vacherin, or meringue shell, filled with raspberries and chocolate ice cream.

"The verdict after the luncheon," wrote the Times's Craig Claiborne, "was that there was nothing like French cooking to promote good Anglo-American relations."

Media coverage of Mr. Verdon's menus helped burnish the Kennedys' reputation as tastemakers and spurred home cooks across the United States to begin investigating French cuisine. When the classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," cowritten by Child, appeared in 1961, a wave of Francophile homemakers began turning out souffles, pates and pork rillettes.

Mr. Verdon continued working at the White House for more than two years after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, but tastes were decidedly different under Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson - "more South," Mr. Verdon once said.

The Kennedys had asked for quenelles de brochet and mousse of sole with lobster. The Johnsons wanted barbecue, spoonbread and chili.

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