Kitchen collections of Philly’s grand dame of cuisine set for sale

Philadelphia foodies will have a chance to own a piece of local culinary history. The personal kitchen of Julie Dannenbaum, a prominent food writer and owner of a cooking school for 20 years, will soon be for sale. 

Dannenbaum is credited with fostering the fine-dining scene in Philadelphia in the 1960s, a mantle Georges Perrier later assumed with Le Bec Fin. Dannenbaum died in December at age 89.

She loved cooking gadgets — a lot. The basement kitchen of her Rittenhouse home is swollen with stacks of wooden mandolins and piles of ceramic Dutch ovens. Racks of gleaming copper pots drape down from the ceiling beams.

A French cheese server. Greek meat skewers. A marble carving vise.

“It’s a stacking measuring set that just does not end. It’s beautiful,” said Kathy Gold, the president of the women’s professional society, Les Dames d’Escoffier, playing with nested aluminum cups. “They all fit in. Or, it did until I took it apart.”

Those cups are metric, measuring increments of liters and centiliters and milliliters, i.e., they’re European. The author of six cookbooks, Dannenbaum often traveled overseas to not only hunt for recipes, but for stuff.

“It is mind boggling,” said Mimi Robertson, her daughter. “If she was interested in bread, then she would get all the bread things. Then she would hear there was a truffle-shaver you must have, so she would get that.”

Food would leave the basement kitchen via dumbwaiter to a first-floor warming kitchen, and then to the formal dining room. Now, the cabinets of that warming kitchen are chock-a-block with several complete china sets.

“When she was in foreign countries, of course she ate,” said Robertson. “My sister likes to say that if mom liked the dinnerware, she bought it. She bought what was on the table.”

Near the end of her life, Dannenbaum established the culinary arts lecture series at the Philadelphia Free Library that still bears her name. The Free Library will act as the repository for the bulk of Dannenbaum’s books and papers, including recipes handwritten on legal pads, complete with experimental notes and rewrites.

The collected kitchen apparatus in the basement will be sold piecemeal at a ticketed event on April 15. Dannenbaum’s children took some of the copper, but there is too much for her two daughters to practically use.

Many of those pots are barely used. Ernestine Nava, Dannenbaum’s domestic help for 26 years, keeps them at a high glossy shine. She says her employer hardly used measuring cups. 

“Mrs. Dannenbaum would take (an ingredient) in hand and put it (in), and everything was delicious,” said Nava. “She would measure in the hands.”

As Gold sorted through the vast collection of tools and equipment — some items so specialized they are difficult to identify — she gravitated toward the well-used cutlery.

“The old knives with worn handles and nicked blades,” said the owner of In the Kitchen Cooking School, for whom Dannenbaum was an early influence. “It shows the love that went into this and a lifetime of using them.”

The beneficiary of the sale will be Les Dames d’Escoffier of which Dannenbaum was a founding member. The money will be used to endow its scholarship fund for aspiring women in the food industry.

The auction will take place on April 15 at the Dannenbaum house in Rittenhouse Square. Tickets will be available starting March 15 through EventBrite and Les Dames d’Escoffier Philadelphia. The exact address will be given upon purchase of a ticket.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.