Helen Lucy Corbitt, American chef, cookbook author, and the doyenne of food service at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, was born in Benson Mines, New York, to Henry James Corbitt and Eva (Marshall) Corbitt on January 25, 1906. Stanley Marcus called her the Balenciaga of food. Dallas author Prudence Mackintosh named her the tastemaker of the century and credited her with delivering Texans from such foods as canned fruit cocktail and overcooked, limp vegetables. Corbitt’s fame as a food legend rests primarily on her fourteen years at Neiman Marcus, but that is misleading. She had an established career in food service long before she went to Neiman’s.
Helen and her younger brother, Michael, grew up in the comfortable home of a prominent lawyer and a dressmaker who had her own business. Food was a central part of family life, and they always employed good cooks, but Helen’s mother baked their bread. Helen apparently learned to cook some basic dishes as a child. She graduated from Skidmore College with a B.S. in home economics in 1928.
One of Corbitt’s first jobs was as a dietitian at Presbyterian Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, between about 1930 and 1934, followed by a similar position at the Cornell Medical Center in New York City. But she was bored in New York. A job hunt during the Great Depression was unsuccessful until 1940 when she received an offer in Texas. Her first reaction was, “Who the hell wants to go to Texas?” She went because it was the only opportunity offered. Corbitt joined the staff of the University of Texas at Austin where she ran the University Tea Room and taught quantity cooking and restaurant management. Located in a small cottage, the tearoom was the laboratory or practice restaurant for her classes. There, she likely began experimenting with dishes she became known for, such as chicken bouillon and popovers. Asked to do a convention dinner using only Texas products, she reacted with an unprintable phrase and then came up with one of her signature dishes: Texas caviar—black-eyed peas served in a sauce of oil, vinegar, garlic, and onion.
In 1942, discontent with Texas and homesick, she accepted an offer from the Houston Country Club but intended to work there only long enough to get the money to return east. After six months, she finally unpacked her suitcases. She enjoyed cooking fine food for the club’s appreciative members, but it was wartime, and the Houston Country Club fell on hard times. In 1948 she moved on to run the Garden Room at Joske’s, the first Houston location for a San Antonio furniture store that later became a department store. It was the only job from which Corbitt was ever fired. As she put it, she and the management differed on philosophies about food and cost. While at Joske’s she also ran her own catering service and sold sauces and dressings under a trademarked label.
In 1952 construction magnate Herman Brown, an old friend, called her back to Austin to manage food service at the Driskill Hotel, where she could once again serve great food for appreciative Texans, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson among them. Mrs. Johnson particularly liked what Corbitt called her flowerpot cakes. She worked at the Driskill as their director of food service between 1952 and 1955.
Stanley Marcus of Dallas’s famed Neiman Marcus specialty store began “courting” Corbitt in 1949 with a telegram offering her a thousand dollars a month, along with an undetermined bonus at year’s end and some participation in the profits from the catering business. He wrote that he was sure she could develop additional income from a local newspaper column and from other consultation jobs if not in conflict with the interests of Neiman Marcus. She put him off for seven years before she accepted his offer to run the Zodiac Room, the upscale restaurant on the top floor of the specialty store in downtown Dallas. Dining service at Neiman’s was neither showing a profit nor serving quality food. Periodically, Marcus called her, but each time she turned him down. That changed one night early in 1955 when, tired of the hotel business, she called to ask, “When do you want me there, Stanley?” and he replied, “Tomorrow.” She began work at Neiman’s that September.
During this heyday of fashion at Neiman Marcus, women wore hats and gloves to lunch and gazed at Neiman’s models who sashayed through the dining room. Corbitt’s philosophy of food matched Marcus’s fashion sense: if you please the most discriminating customer, you’ll have no trouble pleasing those who are less discriminating. Corbitt’s food pleased the palate and filled the restaurant. Neiman’s food soon became as famous as its fashion, but food service still lost money. Marcus did not care because all those diners had to go through his store to get to the restaurant—and they shopped, coming and going.
Many celebrities, including Bob Hope, Princess Margaret, the Duke of Windsor, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, dined in the Zodiac Room, but the typical Neiman Marcus customer of that day was a middle-class housewife. Corbitt predated the revolutions sparked by Julia Child and Betty Freidan. In her view, post-World War II women still belonged in the kitchen, and Helen Corbitt served them simple, straightforward dishes that they could duplicate in their kitchens. Among her signature dishes were fruit salad with poppy seed dressing, individual baked Alaska, and the Duke of Windsor Sandwich (chicken breast, mango, chutney, and cheddar). During the late 1950s Corbitt also produced the syndicated food column suggested by Marcus in his telegram offering employment.
A plaque in her kitchen read, “This is the kitchen of Helen Corbitt. I am the Boss! If you don’t believe it . . . Start Something!” Marcus liked to wander unannounced into various departments in his store. She would have none of it. Once, exasperated with her employees, she fired the entire crew. As they made their way to the elevators, it occurred to her she had a restaurant full of hungry people. She called security, had her staff blocked from exiting, and they returned to work. On another occasion, she made opera diva Maria Callas and a party of thirty go to the end of the line when they were late for a reservation.
Helen Corbitt was at Neiman Marcus only fourteen years. While there, she gave lectures and conducted occasional cooking classes, notably one for select businessmen that met in her apartment. She proved that Texas men wanted more than steak and potatoes. Corbitt also taught classes to benefit the Dallas Symphony and raised more than $150,000 for that institution. She retired in 1969 and began a new career as a food consultant—traveling, teaching, and speaking in public.
Corbitt was the author of several cookbooks: Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook (1957), Helen Corbitt’s Potluck (1962), Helen Corbitt Cooks for Looks (1967, written when her doctor advised her to lose weight), Helen Corbitt Cooks for Company (1974), and Helen Corbitt’s Greenhouse Cookbook (1979, recipes from the spa jointly operated by Neiman’s and Charles of the Ritz). She also edited and wrote the preface for a cookbook, Mexico Through My Kitchen Window (1961) by Maria A. DeCarbia, home economics consultant for the giant J. Walter Thompson Agency. In her cookbooks, Corbitt adapted the recipes for the housewife cooking at home.
Several honors were bestowed upon Helen Corbitt during her lifetime. According to Patricia Vineyard MacDonald, who compiled The Best from Helen Corbitt’s Kitchens in 2000, the professional honor she most treasured was the Golden Plate Award from the Institutional Food Service Manufacturers Association, received in 1961. In 1968 she received the solid gold Escoffier plaque from the Confrérie de la Chaine des Rôtisseurs, the world’s oldest gourmet society. In 1969 she was presented the Outstanding Service Award by the Texas Restaurant Association. She received an honorary doctor of letters from Skidmore College as a distinguished alumna and trustee, and the University of Dallas awarded her its Athena Award for “indomitable spirit and impeccable character.”
Helen Corbitt died of cancer on January 16, 1978, in Dallas. She never married. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Dallas.