The Mystery Chef had a radio show during the 1930s and 1940s that introduced gourmet recipes that were affordable but little is really known about him. I will admit getting to the bottom of who was the man behind The Mystery Chef was a little bit difficult. I read quite a bit of news paper articles as well as the introductions in his books and still don’t think I got quite all the answers as each one told a slightly different story. But I am going to try my best and cobble all the accounts together and see if we can get a picture of how he got his start and who he really was.
John MacPherson, a Scotsman, came to America in 1906. In one account I read that he was originally a press agent for a theater company in London and came to New York to work for an advertising agency. I’ve also seen him called an engineer or given the vague title of a business man. In the introduction to his “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook”, MacPherson says that he left his London business with his father to come to America because he had a growing advertising business in New York.
Supposedly his father did not like how much money his son was spending as John “spent more money in a month” then his father had “spent at my age in a year”. This spending behavior made his father cut him off and forced John to live more frugal. He spent a short time in a boarding house but detested the food. He pooled his money together with a man in the same lot as he and they moved to an apartment. During this time was when, by cooking for himself to save money, that he realized his love for the art of cooking.
Now this is where the timeline starts to get really vague. At some point he marries a red headed woman and gets a radio show in 1930. Some say he got on the radio by filling in for a friend and the anonymous “they” loved him and gave him his own show. A different story was recounted in a 1944 newspaper article that MacPherson was sent to interview a president of a baking soda company but instead spent four hours pitching a radio cooking show. A sadder story was told when the then 83 year old was interviewed for a 1961 newspaper. In that article it was said that he was in advertising but fell into debt while at the same time his wife got sick and they lost their home. To top it all off John MacPherson was diagnosed with cancer which took two major surgeries and a long recovery period before he was able to work again. He tried to get a back into advertising but was fired for being too old. In the article, The Mystery Chef said “I was 53 years old and deeply in debt. It was 1931 and the Depression was on. I felt I was a poor provider for my loyal wife. I sat down to assess my skills and the thought struck me that perhaps I could do something with my hobby of cooking”.
However he got on the radio, it proved to be popular. At the height of his radio career, he was broadcasting nationally twice a week on two stations. He also had 63 sponsors, a couple of cookbooks and millions of listeners. He also earned quite a lot of money in the process which afforded him a New York City Penthouse in Central Park with a pool and a rooftop fountain. It eventually led to a short lived cooking show in 1949.
The name of his show came from, as recounted to many sources, the fact that his mother was embarrassed by his hobby of cooking. The Mystery Chef said that “my mother became reconciled to the fact that I had become an expert in the art of cooking, but she always felt I should keep it under my hat”. He goes on by joking that having a nationally broadcasting cooking show on the radio is hardly “keeping my hobby under my hat”. He kept the name even after she died for a simple reason…because that is how people knew him.
The Mystery Chef believed that anybody can be a good cook as the rules were the same for everybody. In his “Famous Mystery Chef Cook Book”, he goes further to illustrate this point by saying water boils at the same point no matter who you are. If you follow a well written recipe, you too could have the same results whether you were a novice or an expert like him.
He also felt that cooking in the home shouldn’t only be for women. While the culinary and gourmet world of restaurants were controlled by men in the 1930s, the home kitchen was still only for women. Supposedly, his wife never had to cook a meal during their marriage as he did all the cooking. He urged more men to take up the hobby and felt that “contrary to what many person think, it is not unusual for a man to take an interest in cooking”. The Mystery Chef even pointed out that in history there have been a lot of great and powerful men that found pleasure in food. Some examples cited were Alexander Dumas and King Edward VII.
The fact remains that the man is still quite a mystery. He worked hard at concealing his identity often introducing him and his wife as Mr. and Mrs. Mystery Chef. In all the sources I read, I have yet to find a date of birth or when he died. Lynne Oliver of the foodtimeline.org wrote in her section on The Mystery Chef that “neither do we know the name of his first apartment roommate, his red-haired wife, or why his 1949 TV show lasted only one season. Most fascinating? How reporters through time endeavored to convey MacPherson’s credentials (advertising executive, chemical engineer) without questioning his culinary training. A TRUE Mystery Chef, indeed”. The fact is that John MacPherson did not that feel his true identity was important to The Mystery chef as he said “Who I am doesn’t matter, it’s what I have to say that counts”.
SIDE NOTE: If you are interested in adding The Mystery Chef into your collection, there are a few things that you should be aware of. The first thing is that there is A LOT of overlap with his recipes between books. The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook has basically all the recipes that is in The Famous Mystery Chef Cook Book and the same goes for The Little Book of Excellent Recipes. The second thing is that The Famous Mystery Chef Cook Book is just The Never Fail Cook Book with a new cover. When you open The Famous Cook Book the title page actually says The Never Fail Cook Book on it. So my advice would be unless you are a gotta collect them all type of person, just pick the cover and title that most speaks to you to add to your collection.
Bartlett, Virginia K. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink: Volume One and Two. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Brownstone, Cecily. Mystery Chef Lives On. Kingman Daily Miner. August 4, 1981.
Dunning, John. On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lovegren, Sylvia. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads. New York: MacMillan General Reference, 1995.
MacPherson, John. Famous Mystery Chef Cookbook: The Never Fail Cook Book. New York: The Mystery Chef, 1953.
MacPherson, John. The Mystery Chef’s Own Cook Book. New York: Garden City Publishing Company, 1945.
Mystery Chef is on the Air. The Gettysburg Times. December 31, 1935.
Peterson, Robert. Life Begins at 40: Started New Career at 53. St. Joseph Gazette. March 3, 1961.
Steinhauser, SI. He’s as Expert at Washing Dishes as Cooking. The Pittsburgh Press. January 20, 1944.
“Who is the Chef”. Newsweek, December 21, 1942.