Chef René Verdon, third from left.
Both President John Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy came from wealthy, educated, and well-traveled families. They brought a sense of cosmopolitan style to the White House. The public was ready for a First Family that was almost aristocracy: the privations of World War II had faded, the economy was booming, and people were traveling out of the US more than ever. It was only natural that the White House would hire an acclaimed French chef, René Verdon.
The young, bright Kennedys embodied these trends, and the public’s fascination with Jacqueline spilled over into her culinary habits. Verdon’s state-luncheon debut for the British Prime Minister was even splashed across the front page of the New York Times. That day, Verdon served trout cooked in Chablis, a roast fillet of beef au jus, artichoke bottoms, and a dessert called désir d’avril (April Desire), comprised of a raspberry and chocolate-filled meringue shell.
But on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. That same day, Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. He also became René Verdon’s boss. From the start, the Texan and the Frenchman did not see eye to eye, and both small details and significant decisions about White House cuisine fueled their squabbles.
Johnson embodied a down-home Texas style. His tastes ran to Tex-Mex and barbecue, and he didn’t see why they couldn’t save money by using frozen vegetables. The president’s displeasure with his French chef reached a head one day and Vernon never looked back. Read about how things turned around in the White House kitchen at Atlas Obscura.