When thinking of French cooking in mid-century America, most of our thoughts go straight to Julie Child and her iconic tome dedicated to French cuisine Mastering the Art of French Cooking. There are some that also probably think that Child’s cooking show “The French Chef” was the first of its kind but a few came first, one of which was Dione Lucas’ “To a Queen’s Taste”. In the decade of the 1950s, Dione was the face of French cooking in America through her TV show, cooking school, and cookbooks. She was immensely popular and the first to really introduce French cooking to an American audience.
Dione Lucas was born Dione Naroma Margaris Wilson to English parents in Venice, Italy on October 10, 1909. In 1920 the family settled in Boulogne-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. Through helping her mother in the kitchen, who Dione called her inspiration, she realized her calling in cooking. At 19, she enrolled in the L’Ecole de Cordon Bleu and studied under Henri-Paul Pellaprat who was a chef and one of the founders of the famed school. She was the first woman to get the Cordon Bleu diploma.
In 1933, Dione started a branch of the school and restaurant in London called Au Petit Cordon Bleu with a friend and fellow Cordon Bleu student Rosemary Hume. She handled the school while Rosemary ran the restaurant. They catered occasionally such as preparing a weekly lobster meal for the Prince of Wales and a dinner for 50 for the Marquis de Talleyrand in Paris. During this period, Dione met and married her husband Colin Lucas who was an English architect, and together they had two sons. When World War II was underway in Europe, Dione and her sons left for Canada in 1940, while her husband stayed to aid British war efforts. Eventually, they grew apart and divorced.
In 1941 she moved to New York and a year later she opened Le Cordon Bleu school. She gave cooking classes during the week and taught children on Saturdays. Completing all 50 courses did not guarantee a diploma as a rather hard-written and practical exam had to be passed first. Not all students were at the school to get such extensive culinary instruction, some were only at the Le Cordon Bleu to learn how to cook their favorite foods. Dione’s school attracted some high-profile students such as English actor Brian Aherne, actor and comedian Harold Lloyd, and actress Joan Fontaine.
In 1947, Dione Lucas published her first cookbook The Cordon Bleu Cook Book, and debuted her cooking show “To A Queen’s Taste” which was filmed at her cooking school. A year later CBS took over the show and moved it to a studio and started broadcasting it nationally. It aired five days a week and ended in 1949. Through the cooking show, she found great satisfaction in sharing her culinary skills with a broader audience.
By the 1950s, Lucas was immensely popular and consider a spokeswoman for French cooking. During this time, she started another school called The Gourmet Cooking School as well as two restaurants, The Egg Basket and The Gingerbread Man which supposedly introduced the omelet to Americans. Also, The Dione Lucas Show debuted and was broadcast for local markets. She traveled the country during this time doing cooking demonstrations for women’s groups and charity events. She was a big draw as a Kansas City demonstration in 1955 had 900 women show up to watch her cook.
With the arrival of Julia Child in the 60s, Dione Lucas’ popularity waned. She put out another cookbook and still taught classes but never was it to the level of the 50s. Dione Lucas died in December 1971 in London. Two cookbooks were put out posthumously. In 1980, Dione Lucas’s Cordon Bleu Cook Book was entered into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame. Her papers are in the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. Also, the library’s copy of the Cordon Bleu Cook Book was donated by Julia Child in which her own notes can be seen throughout.
I will admit that have a hard time getting a read on Dione Lucas as she can be a woman of contradictions. She laments the use of convenience foods by saying “I don’t want to use canned foods, frozen fish or meat. Convenience foods makes me want to throw up.” Then does advertisements for Mrs. Grass’ Noodle Soup Mixes as well as putting out a line of canned soups. She was known to be a stern teacher but in The Cordon Bleu Cook Book’s introduction she talks about the joys of teaching young children and that they are “stimulating to any teacher”. On one hand, Julie Child called her “the mother of French cooking in America” while James Beard, noted chef and author, called her “a great, great technician who doesn’t know food”. She was described by some as “neurotic, bossy, a hypochondriac, severe, and dry, given to dramatic fainting spell” while others called her “charming, a great showman and an excellent teacher”.
Maybe this is one reason why she doesn’t stick in our minds when thinking of classic cooking teachers that helped usher America into new culinary frontiers. It could also be that she really didn’t try to make French food as accessible for the American kitchen as Julia Child did nor with the personality and flair. I mean her recipe for an omelet is two full pages in The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking. That is a shame as Dione thought very highly of the potential of American cuisine. What she thought got in the way of the United States meeting their potential was simple…..time or our lack of slowing down. She herself said “In the United States, with an abundance of good food never known in Europe, and with all the native talent and ability available, it is unfortunate that more emphasis is not placed on the importance of cooking as an art. There is a tendency to whisk in and out of the kitchen, to be lured by dishes that can be made most quickly.”
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