Today’s leading ladies of the Food Network and Cooking Channel all, in some way or another, owe a debt to the first woman to ever have a culinary show on television. She brought French cooking into American kitchens, teaching the average homemaker how to create haute cuisine. And no, her name wasn’t Julia.
Like Julia Child, Dione Lucas was a cookbook author and television host, as well as an omelet proselytizer and, for most people, a footnote in culinary history. Compared to the effervescent Child, Lucas had more of a straitlaced, all-business nature—which might be the reason fewer people remember her. Nevertheless, she remains an important, pioneering figure in the world of celebrity cooking.
Born in England in 1909, Dione Lucas (pronounced “dee oh knee”) was the first woman to graduate from the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. After working in the capital, she had a brief pre-World War II stint at a hotel in Hamburg, Germany, where, as she later wrote in 1964’s The Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook, frequent guest Adolf Hitler indulged his taste for stuffed squab. (“Let us not hold that against a fine recipe though,” Lucas writes.) From there, Lucas graduated to opening Cordon Bleu locations in London and New York, moving to the latter city while pregnant with a young son in tow, as her husband remained in England doing war-related work. In 1947, Lucas released The Cordon Bleu Cookbook, her first of many books for home cooks.
The newly growing medium of television soon came calling, and based on the success of her cookbook, Lucas was asked to become the first woman with a cooking show in America. New York’s CBS affiliate broadcast To The Queen’s Taste from 1948 to 1949; it would later be renamed The Dione Lucas Cooking Show to take advantage of her growing name recognition. Directed by Frances Buss Buch, who also made history as the network’s first female director, it showcased the chef’s remarkable precision and earned her a reputation for being both meticulous and a bit bossy—Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart.
“She was a marvelous chef and interesting to listen to, very formal in her approach, no waving around of pans like Julia Child,” Buss Buch said of Lucas in a 2008 interview with Archive Of American Television. “She didn’t have much humor, but she was a grand chef.”
A 1949 spread in Life that features elaborate dishes like “boeuf roti printaniere” and “bass belle Hélène” sums up Lucas’ cooking philosophy: “The most important item in all her recipes is time,” it proclaims, just below an image of Lucas filming her program while ignoring a sign being held up for her, reading, “Faster.” By the mid ’50s, she was also known for introducing New Yorkers to omelets—her specialty—via a breakfast restaurant called Egg Basket at Bloomingdale’s. That passion would continue at The Gingerman, which she opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1964, serving omelets in one of the first restaurants to have a kitchen viewable from the dining room. As in her TV shows, cooking remained a performance art.
For someone who’s not quite a household name, Lucas’ legacy is remarkable, and her dishes are still an inspiration to chefs a half century later—even if some of the dishes seem a bit dated now. The Cordon Bleu Cookbook in particular has numerous ambitious recipes that would be great for some sort of Old World-themed dinner party, including more than two dozen ways to prepare sole, copious Coquille St. Jacques remixes, and even salmon pudding. The chapter on eggs is where the most timeless knowledge is concentrated, and where aspiring masters can hone their skills. Lucas’ “oeufs en surprise” (poached eggs in cheese omelet), for example, borders on a party trick in its combination of two classic techniques in a way that was, culinarily speaking, well ahead of its time.
Lucas’ name was also made immortal in her collection of Japanese knives, which are made of molybdenum steel and have strangely squared off tips. You can still find some pieces on eBay. She was also a prolific spokesperson, endorsing various products—coffee, luncheon meats, vinegar, aluminum foil—as another prong in her multi-streamed multimedia income, forging a path for every modern celebrity chef thereafter.
So with so much talent, success, and business savvy, why has Lucas’ name more or less faded from history? Again, a lot of it may come down to her chief difference from Julia Child. Lucas may have inspired a cult following with her technical skills, but her severe, humorless personality didn’t win her many mainstream fans—on or off screen. In 2011, some 40 years after Lucas died from pneumonia, Gastronomica ran a story called “Remembering Dione Lucas” that speaks of the “temper and moods” and “erratic behavior” that contributed to her being “actively dislikable.” It’s a persona that may have inspired respect but not much warmth (an unfair problem for a female cooking personality, especially half a century ago). Renowned cookbook author Paula Wolfert, who studied under Lucas and was for a time her assistant, has said, “Dione was a bitter woman, not warm and cuddly, like a mentor should be.” Food writer David Kamp, writing in his book United States Of Arugula, described Lucas as “small, stocky, and dour, with her hair pulled back tightly like a suffragette’s.”
Lucas’ son Mark gave a revealing interview about his mother in which he ultimately deemed her “an extraordinarily complex person, but essentially unsophisticated in the best sense of the term.” He goes even further in deconstructing her: He thinks her books were largely ghostwritten save for her recipes, and he believes that some of the most-repeated anecdotes about her—even her own story about cooking for Hitler—were probably just tall tales. But if Lucas is right, these inventions can be seen as the start of a formula that still works for today’s celebrity chefs. No matter how deep the wells of knowledge and technique, you need a hook. And if you want to be remembered the way Julia Child is, you should also be friendly and relatable—otherwise you may become as consigned to history as some of Lucas’ recipes.