A Harte Appetite: Chef Boyardee

Sep 10, 2018

Betty Crocker, Mrs. Butterworth, and Chef Boyardee: there are so many culinary icons that have been invented purely for marketing purposes that you could be excused for assuming that all three of these names are fictitious.

Betty Crocker clearly is, even though at one time she was named by Fortune magazine as the second most popular woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. Likewise, even though she has her own Facebook page, Mrs. Butterworth is not real and for that matter, neither is her syrup, as it contains neither real butter nor real maple syrup.

But Chef Boyardee was a real, honest-to-goodness person. The tale of how this man, once the head chef at the famed Plaza Hotel in New York, became synonymous with cheap, flabby, canned pasta is a genuine American success story.

Chef Boyardee was born in 1897 in Italy. He arrived to Ellis Island in 1914 with his cooking skills already considerably developed, having worked as a cook at his first restaurant in Italy when he was only ten years old. Those skills earned him a spot in the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel. Growing his signature mustache to make himself look older, he eventually worked his way up to head chef. 

His career included stints at a variety of prestigious restaurants, including West Virginia's Hotel Greenbrier, still one of the poshest places around, where he catered President Woodrow Wilson's wedding reception. Before long he decided to open his own place -- in Cleveland. There, his spaghetti dinners were so popular that customers asked if they could buy his red sauce to take home with them. He obliged by packaging it in milk bottles, until he could no longer keep up with the demand and enlisted the help of a cannery.

Soon, he has his own factory and a national brand -- which he sold -- making him a millionaire many times over. His picture still appears on cans of Beeferoni, as far as most kids are concerned, his greatest legacy.