Every time I make scrambled eggs, I think of René Verdon. The French chef, who cooked for the Kennedys in the White House and later had a great French restaurant in San Francisco, taught me to add a little cream or butter to the eggs just as they reach the right consistency. It enriches the dish and keeps the eggs from overcooking.
These days I save my occasional doses of butter and cream for other applications. Instead I use a spoonful of buttermilk. But the idea behind it, the kill-two-birds approach, reflects what caught my interest about this chef: his sensuality about food and practicality about executing it.
The food world lost an influential figure and a memorable character when Verdon died Wednesday at his home in San Francisco, where he had lived since 1972. He was 86.
My kitchen bookshelf has original editions of books by Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Marcella Hazan and other pioneers who introduced good European cooking to Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. But the most well-thumbed volume on my shelf, the one I turn to again and again for no-nonsense, thorough advice about how cooking should be done, was Verdon's French Cooking for the American Table, published in 1974.
Having devoured his first book, The White House Chef Cookbook, and having recently acquired this one, I sought him out shortly after I arrived here myself in 1977. I visited him at Le Trianon, the San Francisco restaurant he opened in 1972. For 15 years it was San Francisco's most glorious French restaurant. I wrote a story for The Examiner, where I was food and wine editor, and he became my secret resource about everything culinary—especially how to pick and use the best ingredients, employ the most effective techniques, and execute classic dishes. He always loved to talk about food and cooking.
In 1961, the same year Julia Child's first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy chose Verdon to run the White House kitchen. At a distance of 50 years, it requires some imagination to recall just how revolutionary that was. America did not eat like that then, but publicity surrounding Mrs. Kennedy and accounts of Verdon's dinners nudged us in that direction. It set the stage for Child's "The French Chef" TV show, and soon America was cooking seriously.
Verdon later influenced a generation of chefs in California, especially those in the French wing, including Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys and Roland Passot of La Folie. Both of them remained close friends with him.
He was a born teacher. I was reminded of that often as I leafed through French Cooking for the American Table today. Carl Lyren, who co-wrote it, caught that spirit and the chef's thoroughness. Just reading the page-and-a-half dissertation delineating how a French chef approaches asparagus made me smile. It completely explains what is so great about the vegetable, how many different kinds there are, how best to prepare them, and what to avoid doing, and he notes that the trimmings should not be discarded but made into soup.
As asparagus is starting to appear in the market, I recommend Verdon's insightful directions for using the stalks and trimmings to make asparagus puree. For the trimmed stalks, he cooks them only until they bend slightly when held horizontal. For the trimmings, he suggests boiling the stalk ends and other bits until they are thoroughly soft. Then drain them, and here's the important part: Squeeze out the water, chop them coarsely and cook them over low heat in a lightly buttered saucepan until they are dry. This extracts the most intense flavor before pureeing them. Reheat the puree and finish it with a little salt, pepper and a bit of butter. That's it.
Tonight I am planning to make that puree, serve it under a chicken breast or fish fillet, break out a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or Sancerre, and lift a glass to René Verdon, a French chef who should not be forgotten.
Carole Wurster — New York — February 5, 2011 12:31pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — February 5, 2011 1:21pm ET
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