Photo: Current White House chef Cristeta Comerford,
the first female and minority in the post, will stay on
as top toque for the Obama administration. (AP)Source: LYNNE MAREK , http://www.suntimes.com
Yes, she can (cook)
WHITE HOUSE | Former chefs dish about job,
presidential palates and their pick for Obama
White House chefs spanning five presidents may have catered to
different culinary tastes, but they agree on who
President-elect Barack Obama's kitchen commander should be.
The former chefs vote "aye" for Cristeta Comerford, or "Cris"
as they call the current White House executive chef.
Comerford, who in 2005 became the first female and
first minority named to the post, has the right attitude and skills
to excel in the job, they say, drawing on their own experiences to make the call.
Obama's transition team phoned Comerford's predecessor,
Walter Scheib, to find out what the job entails, Scheib says.
The White House executive chef must have strong culinary skills,
be willing to check ego and politics at the door,
be tremendously discreet about happenings in "the residence"
and put the family's needs above all other considerations, Scheib says.
"It is first and foremost about knowing what the family wants and giving it
to them," says Scheib, noting that those desires might include everything
from zapping a bag of popcorn for the kids
to preparing a state dinner for 900 people.
In return for sometimes putting their own families and career
ambitions second, the White House chefs said they reaped
once-in-a-lifetime rewards such as meeting famous foreign dignitaries,
like Nelson Mandela, in private settings.
They tackled monumental challenges, such as serving hundreds of
unexpected guests at one picnic,
and catered daily to presidential eating habits,
including preparing all desserts without flour or dairy for one president.
Many historians view Frenchman Rene Verdon, appointed by
Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961, as the first professional "White House chef."
Kennedy wanted Verdon to take presidential dining to a new level,
giving a "White House touch," to everything,
said Barbara Haber, a food historian who developed
Harvard University's cookbook collection.
Verdon even traveled with the Kennedys to Massachusetts,
Canada and Panama, among other places, to cook for them.
President Kennedy was particularly fond of Verdon's Boston
clam chowder, even though the chef pleaded with the president to
let him serve it with less flour,
says the 84-year-old Verdon, now living in San Francisco.
The first lady typically selects the White House chef and often aims
to make her mark on the kitchen, which is a small one despite its prestige.
In 1994, Hillary Clinton commissioned Scheib to bring a
new era of American cuisine to the White House after
years of French-style cooking, Scheib says.
Both Clinton and Laura Bush were focused on the nutritional value of
food, with Bush adamant about using organic products, Scheib says.
The wives also mandated that certain foods be avoided. Bush,
whose husband was a teetotaler after earlier years of drinking,
didn't want alcohol in any food.
Clinton barred chocolate, dairy and flour because her husband
was allergic to them, says Roland Mesnier,
a Frenchman who was the White House pastry chef
for 26 years before retiring in 2006.
President Clinton "loved dessert" and sometimes would push aside
the fresh fruit cobblers Mesnier made to gobble down a chunk of
chocolate cake, the pastry chef says.
The president's puffy-eyed allergic reaction became
a clue for Mesnier that he had been a "naughty" eater, he says.
But for all their political differences,
Presidents Bush and Clinton were soul mates when it came to food,
sharing a love of all things barbecued, especially ribs,
and spicy Southwestern-style foods like enchiladas,
says Scheib, now a cooking consultant who like Mesnier has written
a book about his White House experiences.
These presidents' mantra was that anything was better
with melted cheese, he says.
Chelsea Clinton took a left turn from her father's eating habits and
was a vegan by her senior year of high school, Scheib says.
Despite all the recent speculation about who Obama will choose
to lead the kitchen, past presidents have rarely named
a chief chef early in their administrations.
Henry Haller served a lengthy period from 1966 to 1987
through five presidents.
President George H.W. Bush's wife, Barbara Bush,
dispensed with two short-term chefs before getting comfortable
with the Frenchman Pierre Chambrin,
who was canned after two years with the Clintons.
"The food for them is like fuel," Chambrin says of
the Clintons, adding that the Bushes were more appreciative.
Chambrin never made anything twice for the Bushes,
except his cassoulet, a French stew of beans, pork, lamb
and duck, because the president requested it, Chambrin says.
On the other hand, Bush hated broccoli and when he said
so publicly, miffed U.S. farmers sent truckloads of
the vegetable to the White House.
While Obama reportedly loves Chicago pizza and detests beets,
there are few real clues as to what he might want from his new chef.
His staff declined to comment.
The former White House chefs dismiss the suggestion of
a famous chef taking the job.
"You are never going to have a star chef in the White House,"
says Chambrin, now the executive chef at the Saint Louis Club.
"You only have two stars, the president and the first lady."
Comerford, who went to culinary school in her native Philippines and
later worked at the Viennese restaurant Le Ciel and in major
Washington hotels, initially was hired at the White House as
a temporary worker for a special event.
When Scheib saw her talent, he hired her full-time in 1995,
eventually promoting her to sous chef after Keith Luce left the kitchen
to become the top chef at Chicago's former Spruce restaurant.
Luce, who is now the executive chef at the Herbfarm in Woodinville,
Wash., outside Seattle, left partly because he found that cooking food
in the White House "to appeal to a wide variety of people" limited his creativity.
Comerford is the kind of "selfless person" who can do the job right,
Luce said. She already has proven herself on major events,
such as planning a White House dinner over four months for
the November 2005 visit of Prince Charles of Wales.
The menu featured buffalo tenderloin medallions with
wild rice pancakes, glazed parsnips and young carrots.
Still, staying with a new administration is not an easy transition
because the chef has to see the job in
an entirely new light, the former chefs said.
The day the Bushes moved into the White House,
Scheib said none of his knowledge from the Clinton era had value anymore.
It was a "bittersweet" moment for Scheib three years later when
Laura Bush decided she couldn't leave her legacy in the kitchen
with Hillary Clinton's chef, but made history by replacing him with his protege.Source: LYNNE MAREK , http://www.suntimes.com
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