When Jackie Kennedy's French Chef Threatened To Quit
Image Credit: Jacqueline and John F Kennedy with Pakistani president Ayub Khan and his daughter Begum Naseem Aurangzeb, in July 1961, Washington.

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11 July 1961. Washington DC. It was the day US President John F Kennedy was hosting an important state dinner — for his Pakistani counterpart, Ayub Khan — and the White House’s chef, René Verdon, was threatening to quit. 

Verdon was a personal find of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The Kennedys had first met Verdon during their residence at New York landmark The Carlyle. Jackie was known to be a Francophile: she spoke French fluently, had appointed a French decorator to oversee the historic restoration of the White House, and had been deeply influenced by her travels across the Atlantic. She’d been particularly impressed by the state dinners hosted in JFK’s honour most recently in Europe: at heritage sites like Versailles, outside of Paris; and in Vienna at the Schönbrunn Palace. 

For Khan’s visit to the US, she wondered if the state banquet could be hosted in a similar manner, somewhere outside the White House. She settled on a property close by: George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon. Here, on its east lawn, Jackie decided that her over 130 guests would be treated to an elegant dinner crafted by Verdon, followed by a concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra. 


In the short time since she entered the White House and brought Verdon on board, Jackie had completely changed how state dinners were crafted and served. Before JFK, the White House kitchen was run by Navy stewards and caterers; state dinners tended to have between 5-6 courses, although these were not necessarily known for being haute cuisine. 

Jackie and Verdon introduced a succinct three-course menu that drew heavily from French cuisine. Like her personal style, the White House dinners too became sophisticated, elegant affairs. So influential was this combined culinary approach that popular cookbook author Julie Child credited the duo with spurring interest in (and sales of) her seminal “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, also published in 1961.

The sole critique of their endeavours seemingly came from JFK himself, who preferred that the menus for state dinners be written in English, rather than (as was typical for Jackie’s time) in French. It was a dictum she only sporadically followed. 


Back to July 1961, her chosen venue may only have been the figurative hop, skip and jump away from the White House, but Jackie’s dinner required extensive planning and coordination. The food prepared by Verdon had to be carefully transported in army trucks equipped with special refrigeration and heating facilities. If the chef had any doubts about how the dishes to be served to Khan and the other guests would survive their little journey — there was to be an avocado and crabmeat mimosa, followed by chicken in hunter’s sauce, a rice-based dish (Couronne de Riz Clamart), raspberries with fresh whipped cream, petit fours, and a selection of French wines — he kept those to himself.

But he couldn’t hold back when another ignominy shortly presented itself: In the heat of the Washington summer — with the east lawn’s proximity to the Potomac River — open-air dining meant dealing with a swarm of mosquitoes. Of course the dignitaries couldn’t be subjected to that, so the army promptly sprang into action, as TIME magazine noted in a report, solicitously spraying the Mount Vernon grounds “with DDT to rid them of their native gnats, mosquitoes, ants and chiggers”.

Except — they hadn’t taken into account one irate French chef. Verdon was convinced that the army’s insect repelling mission would end up contaminating his carefully prepared dinner. He threatened to quit that very moment, and return home to France. 

To resolve the tense stand-off, Jackie’s secretary Letitia Baldrige had to step in. She reassured Verdon that the food would stay perfectly safe and untouched. To drive her point home, she asked two Secret Service agents to sample the dishes Verdon had readied, in his presence. It was only when they remained perfectly hale and hearty (and appreciative of the meal) that Verdon came around to Baldridge’s point of view. 


There were myriad other hurdles to clear (although, thankfully for Verdon, none concerning the food) before the event could be organised to Jackie’s exacting specifications. But that night, as the 138 guests were brought to Mount Vernon in four flower-decked yachts (with musicians serenading the passengers on each) down the Potomac River, everything was in perfect readiness. 

On the east lawn, 16 round tables awaited Khan, his daughter Begum Naseem Aurangzeb, and the other guests, under a marquee. With bunches of fresh flowers as centrepieces and the crystal and cutlery arranged just so, the stage was set for Verdon to enthrall everyone with his dinner service.

Khan — in a white evening suit — was seated next to Jackie, and complemented her slim, white, floor-length gown. Begum Naseem was chic in a sari, while JFK had broken his own dress code and donned a black tux.

The evening — despite a couple of (hilarious in retrospect) hitches — was a success. Reams of print were devoted the next day to dissecting the wines, the food, and the cooking techniques employed. Verdon, then 36, was universally hailed as a “culinary genius”.


Verdon served the Kennedys until JFK’s assassination in November of 1963. During his stint, he planted herbs and vegetables on the White House grounds, picking them fresh for his recipes, emphasising the use of seasonal ingredients. Verdon continued for two more years as the White House’s chef under Lyndon B Johnson, but finally quit in 1965. His reason this time was not insect repellant, but the Johnsons’ desire for southern — and canned — food.