Founding Father and President Emeritus 1960-1982
Joseph Donon was born in Aunay en Bazois, France, on Nov. 21, 1888. His father owned a dairy farm in Chantilly and was also in the transportation business. Because he was a sickly child and terribly fussy about his food, his father advised him to become a chef. A friend of the family, Antoine Ott, who had once been the chef of the Duc d'Aumale, owner of the Chateau de Chantilly, helped young Joseph in his early career.
When Joseph turned 13, he was given an apprenticeship in the kitchens of the Hotel des Arenes in Senlis, which by this time was owned by Ott. Showing an aptitude for cooking, he was sent to the Maison Gervaise, a large cooking and pastry store in Vincennes, to learn pastry for six months. After this training, he worked for eight months as an assistant chef at the Mexican Embassy in Neuilly. He then became assistant to the chef of the marquis de Panisse Passis, at Villeneuve-Loubet, which of course was Escoffier's birthplace. At this time, Escoffier was the chef at the Carlton Hotel in London.
One day, on a vacation to his home, Escoffier had lunch with the Marquis. At this time the Marquis' chef was also away on vacation, so Joseph Donon prepared the meal. After it was over, the Marquis introduced him to his guest. Escoffier told Donon: "If you are ever in London, come and see me." Joseph was 17, and six weeks later, taking Escoffier at his word, he went toLondon. Escoffier, not expecting to see him, laughed at his youthful impulsiveness, but allowed him to stay the season at the Carlton Hotel. That was 1905, and for five years thereafter, Donon worked at the Carlton. There were 70 chefs in the kitchen who prepared 200 dinners each night, cooking everything to order.
In 1910, Donon left to put in two years of military service back home. In March of 1912, he was back at the Carlton. Escoffier made the menu and Donon prepared the dinner for a party for Mr. Frick, a wealthy American industrialist, of Mousse de Sole al'Americaine as the entree and Poularde Soufflee Princesse for the main course. After dinner, Mr. Frick called the young chef in to give him his tip — two 20-dollar gold pieces. Never having seen gold pieces before, Donon at first thought they were medals.
Frick asked Donon to come to America as his chef. They were booked to sail on the Titanic, but Mrs. Frick sprained her ankle, so the plans were changed and they sailed two days later on the North German Lloyd Liner, Amerika. As they crossed the Atlantic, they passed the iceberg and the debris from the Titanic. Fate had plans for Donon.
In 1914, only six months after his marriage, he returned to his homeland to serve as a sergeant with the French infantry in the First World War. This patriot, who later became an American citizen, was severely wounded and sent home from service disabled. For his distinguished service in action, he was awarded the Medailles Militaires, the highest French military honor. Doctors in this country rebuilt his left shoulder and he returned to Frick's employ.
In 1917, Donon's health and the rigors of the Frick household forced him to look elsewhere for employment. Mr. Frick, who had always been like a father to Donon, advised him and gave him favorable credentials and references.
In 1917, he found a position as chef for Mrs. Hamilton Twombly, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. With her three large estates and constant entertaining, Donon was always faced with a challenge which he met with a flair. For 38 years, he worked in her households as chef until his retirement in 1955 at the age of 67.
The American Academy of Chefs honored Joseph Donon and inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Chef Donon was certainly worthy of this great honor — one of the six founders of the ACF, he also served as secretary general for 25 years, as well as editor of Culinary Review.
Donon strongly believed in education, and authored many cookbooks. He served as a commis to Auguste Escoffier, and founded the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society with several other chefs in 1936, serving as president until his retirement. Donon also founded the Escoffier Foundation Escoffier Museum and home in Villeneuve-Loubet, France, outside of Nice. Before his death he made sure that the Societies, Foundation and Museum were all in good order so that they may continue.
For the next 20 years, Joseph Donon enjoyed his retirement at his home in Middletown, R.I., just outside of Newport, called "Villa Chez Nous." To keep himself busy, he was a member of the Epicureans fraternity, the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society of New York, and co-founder and president of the Les Amis d'Escoffier Foundation, Inc., a tax-exempt organization that awards cooking scholarships to talented students to pursue their studies.
He is also the founder and president of the Auguste Escoffier Foundation Museum of Villeneuve-Loubet, Alpes Maritimes, Provence. He was a member and president of the Les Medailles Militaires de New York, a branch of the Paris-centered association of war veterans who have been decorated with France's highest honor, and which raises funds for the orphans of other veterans.
His retirement was full of all of these activities and his own special pleasures. Each morning at three o'clock a.m. from June to October, Joseph would drive to the ocean and spend the morning salt-water fishing. Although at 93 his fishing days were over, Monsieur Donon and his many memories were alive and well. He was an exceptional man who led an exceptional life. A true credit to our profession.
On Nov. 16, 1981, at The Castle Restaurant in Leicester, Mass., the New England Chapter of the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society honored Joseph Donon at its annual dinner. On this occasion, Ferdinand E. Metz, CMC, AAC, then-president of the ACF, presented Donon with a special award. Donon was also honored with an honorary membership in the Honorary Order of the Golden Toque. Joseph Donon died five months later, on March 19, 1982.