The French Chef of the Automat

Ever wondered about the mastermind behind some of Horn & Hardarts most iconic dishes? Meet Francis Bourdon, a French chef who held the esteemed position of executive chef for an impressive 37 years.

The journey began in 1933 when H&H enlisted Bourdon to oversee their sprawling commissary on the West Side of Manhattan. "In the beginning, I had my doubts about the job," confessed Bourdon in a 1979 interview with the Daily News. "But when I started to get in the swing of things, it was so different, such a challenge. Nobody was doing anything like this.”

One of Bourdon's groundbreaking innovations at Horn & Hardart was the introduction of the stock pot. Before his tenure, soups and stews were prepared haphazardly, with an assortment of meats and vegetables simply thrown into a pot. Appalled by this approach, Bourdon introduced his team to the art of the classic French stock pot – a simmering cauldron of broth derived from meat bones, imparting a distinct richness to every dish it touched.

Bourdon also presided over Horn & Hardart's renowned sample table, the cornerstone of its rigorous quality control program. Each day a panel of tasters, including the company president, convened to evaluate the day's offerings and any new creations Bourdon was developing. They sampled every dish, and anything not up to snuff was promptly pulled from the stores.

People have always coveted H&H recipes. Bourdon reminisced about receiving sacks of letters filled with inquiries: “What makes the beef stew taste so great? What is the secret of your macaroni and cheese? Please, Monsieur Bourdon, the recipe.” Bourdon would humbly respond that there were no secret recipes. For starters, items were prepared in colossal quantities – think 300 gallons of beans at a time – making it impractical to scale down recipes for home use. The “secret” of Bourdon's cooking and the food at Horn & Hardart lay primarily in two areas: freshness and consistency.