A Tale of Two Chefs
by Alan Borer
If asked for the name of a “chef,” most children (and many adults) would immediately mention “Chef Boyardee” and his line of canned pasta products. There really was a chef behind the smiling, mustachioed man on the can label. His proper name was Ettore Boiardi (1897-1985). Boiardi came to the United States from Italy in 1915, went into the food business, and eventually became a household name. By the end of his life, he had become an Ohioan, ending his days in the Cleveland suburb of Parma. His brand, and his likeness are now owned by the international conglomerate ConAgra.
Toledo once had an answer for the Chef Boyardee brand in the form of another smiling chef, the “Chef” brand of canned foods made and distributed by the Berdan Company. Calling themselves “The Largest Distributers [sic] of Canned Goods in the United States,” the brand had numerous offerings. In their heyday, they sold almost every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable, plus macaroni, baked beans, olive oil, coffee and tea, lobster, salmon, and, like Boiardi, spaghetti.
Like Chef Boyardee, the Berdan Chef’s image appeared in many advertisements and giveaways. For example, Chef brought out a book of nursery rhymes titled, “Granny Goose Jingles,” with nine pages of nursery rhymes and a tenth rhyme of Chef products, including these lines:
What is it you want, is it grown on trees?
Is it kissed by the sun and the gentle breeze?....
The Chef will bring them to your table—
You’ll find them all ’neath his smiling label.
In 1912, a 64 page Chef Cook Book was published. It was filled with recipes that could use some of the “Chef’s” offerings. Chef also offered canning supplies, such as sealable jars and sealing rubber.
The Chef’s picture appeared in newspaper advertisements over the years. The Chef brand had its own fleet of delivery trucks. Many of the Chef products were kept in the now crumbling Berdan Building at 601 Washington Street in the Warehouse District.
As noted above, Chef Foods was a brand name belonging to the Berdan & Company wholesale groceries firm. The history of that company is full of Toledo patriarchs. Founded in the very early year of 1838 by Valentine Ketcham, the nascent food concern numbered among its directors John Berdan, the first mayor of Toledo, and James and Joseph Secor. The company lasted well over a century, until it was bought out in 1938.
The Chef, always portrayed by the same picture of a bearded, smiling chef holding a spoon, did good work for the Berdan wholesalers. He, along with Chef Boyardee, did stellar service selling food for their creators.