FDU community members publish book about Vanderbilt-Twombly private chef
Long before becoming Fairleigh Dickinson University, the Florham Campus was home to the wealthy Vanderbilt-Twombly family. What some may not know is the story of their world-renowned French chef, Joseph Donon. Donon was possibly one of the most famous and wealthy private chefs in the country.
Walter Cummins and Arthur T. Vanderbilt II, members of the Florham community, have released a book titled “‘The Richest and Most Famous Private Chef in the World’ Joseph Donon: Gilded Age Dining at Florham with Florence Vanderbilt Twombly.” The work gives an in-depth look at Donon’s career as the family’s private chef.
Born in 1888 in France, Donon started his illustrious career at the age of 13 when he became an apprentice in a local hotel. He then became assistant chef at the Mexican Embassy and was able to cook for French Master Chef Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier was so impressed that he allowed 17-year-old Donon to join him at the Carlton Hotel in London.
In 1912, while at the Carlton, Donon was offered passage to America by American industrialist Henry Clayton Frick, who hired him as his personal chef.
Donon was set to sail to America with the Fricks on the Titanic; they were on their way to the ship when Mrs. Frick hurt her ankle, forcing them to delay their voyage. Averting disaster, they sailed aboard the USS America two days later, passing the iceberg and debris of the Titanic on their way.
Donon worked for Frick before World War I. In 1917, he was hired as private chef to Mrs. Hamilton Twombly. Between the family’s large estates and Mrs. Twombly’s frequent entertaining, Donon was happily challenged for 38 years until his retirement in 1955 at age 64. He lived another 30 years until he passed away in Newport, Rhode Island.
In the book, Donon recalls a way of life during the Gilded Age. In previous interviews with The New Yorker, Donon said, “It was a special time, and the way those houses were run should not be forgotten!” When hired, he dismissed the entire kitchen staff and hired his own workers. Donon had no budget to adhere to and his only order was to give Mrs. Twombly “the best of the best.”
Donon and his staff oversaw a huge number of luncheons, dinners and parties. The book tells the tale of his time working for Mrs. Twombly, and details what it was like when the property was thriving as a private estate, her generosity and house procedures. The book also includes interesting photos from throughout Donon’s life, including photos of the Twomblys, their estate.
The book includes some of Donon’s recipes and is available at the FDU bookstore and on Amazon.