The Texas Chefs Hall of Fame: 1981 and Now

Categories: Leftovers

Zephyr Wright: LBJ's personal cook at the White House and at the LBJ Ranch. Developed Pedernales River Chili. Famous for her White House hash and for trying to keep LBJ on a diet.

Once again, Kent does a great woman a great disservice by noting her for something as simplistic as keeping the president on a diet. Zephyr Wright had far more of an influence on LBJ than solely on his waistline. In fact, many historians attribute some of the Johnson administration's work in the Civil Rights movement to the impact that Wright made on both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird.

A maid from my grandmother's hometown of Marshall, Wright became the housekeeper and cook for Lady Bird Johnson when Wright was only in her early twenties. She remained with the Johnsons for decades, becoming a de facto member of their family. Wright developed popular recipes -- including that Pedernales River Chili -- that are still revered to this day. But Leonard H. Marks, director of the U.S. Information Agency during the Johnson administration, once told NPR of a far greater legacy that Wright left behind:

Many say that Lyndon, because he came from the South, didn't believe in civil rights. Lady Bird had two people as hired help, Zephyr and Sammy Wright. Zephyr was the maid and cook, and Sammy was the chauffeur. At one of the luncheons I attended before Johnson became president, Zephyr was serving when Lyndon told her that she and Sammy should get ready to drive to Austin. The family would join them later. She said, "Senator, I'm not going to do it." There was silence.

She said, "When Sammy and I drive to Texas and I have to go to the bathroom, like Lady Bird or the girls, I am not allowed to go to the bathroom. I have to find a bush and squat. When it comes time to eat, we can't go into restaurants. We have to eat out of a brown bag. And at night, Sammy sleeps in the front of the car with the steering wheel around his neck, while I sleep in the back. We are not going to do it again."

LBJ put down his napkin and walked out of the room. Later, when Johnson became president and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Zephyr was there. Johnson motioned to her, gave her the pen that he used to sign the bill. He said, "You deserve this more than anybody else."

Who would you nominate as the seven Texas chefs for inclusion in the Texas Cooks Hall of Fame today? Here are our picks:

Robert del Grande, Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing: The three men who helped found the Southwestern cuisine movement in the 1980s and 1990s, and helped elevate upscale Texas cooking in Dallas and Houston to nationally regarded levels.

Michael Cordúa: The first chef to introduce significant Latin American influences into Texan cooking that weren't from Mexico, and whose restaurants -- Churrascos, Américas, Artista and Amazón Grill -- are still relevant today.

Monica Pope: James Beard nominee, Top Chef: Masters contestant and the only Texas woman to ever be named a Top 10 Best New Chef by Food & Wine, Pope helped introduce and popularize the concept of locavorism with restaurants such as The Quilted Toque, Boulevard Bistrot and t'afia.

Hugo Ortega: Another James Beard nominee and ultimate American success story, Mexican immigrant Ortega showed that Mexican food is more than just fajitas and enchiladas -- it can be upscale, destination dining, too.

Tyson Cole: James Beard winner and commander of the Uchi empire, Tyson Cole epitomizes the new wave of young turk chefs who are changing the way Texas cuisine is perceived at a national level. It's adventurous, highly modern and yet still in keeping with our Lone Star roots.

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When someone gets around to telling me I am wrong about the spelling of the Pedernales River, they will be right.  It just looks funny to me since I've only heard it pronounced "Perd -Nalice."


The LBJ Ranch house on the Perdenales (misspelled above) has been restored to its Presidental heyday furnishings and opened to the public just in the past few years since Lady Bird died. The red phone under the dining room table at the head position was a necessary connection to Washington during those long dinner parties. They sometimes cooked in the big hearth in the sitting room where 3 black and white TVs showed the 3 networks all the time. Cigarette boxes in every room for guests and private air strip for the Air Force One plane now also displayed there are some of the many amazing things to see. Well worth a stop while in the Hill Country.


Assuming that the 1981 edition of this book was NOT the first, since LBJ died in 1973.  Also, Katherine, you might be interested in having a peek at my 1984 edition of Texas Celebrity Coookbook, with reproduced letters complete with letterhead from Texas notables and their favorite recipes.  Heavily skewed towards Dallas, it includes recipes from Lady Bird Johnson, Walter Cronkite, Ann Richards and Kathy Whitmire among others.  Wish I could say this was a treasured keepsake from a bygone era, but it arrived 2 months ago from my aunt in Chicago, who found it at a garage sale. 

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