The President’s Plate: The Modern Era

By Ana Kinkaid, editor of the culinary magazine CONNECT

Part II: The Modern Era

By the mid-20th century, America had recovered from the Depression, fought in a second World War and built a modern industrial base. Professionally-trained chefs replaced the skilled cooks and itinerant chefs from the earlier days of the White House. As the culinary skills in the White House soared, so did the hopes and dreams of America.

CHEF RENE VERDON
(John F. Kennedy 1961-1963)

The focus of the White House dramatically changed when the Kennedys became residents. For the first time, the in-house cook was given the official governmental title White House Executive Chef.

The world-traveled first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy personally chose French-born René Verdon. They often conversed in French, all the while keeping the president supplied with his favorite New England Clam Chowder — and baked cookies for the First Daughter, Caroline.

When he wasn’t feeding the first family, Verdon could be found harvesting vegetables from the gardens he’d planted on the White House roof, beginning a White House garden tradition.

Kennedy’s favorite dish: Vichyssoise Soup

CHEF HENRY HALLER
(Lyndon B Johnson 1963-1969)

After Kennedy’s tragic assassination in 1963, cuisine at the White House shifted dramatically back to the security of familiar American comfort foods. President Lyndon B. Johnson preferred a simple hamburger or bowl of chili to an elegant French pâté.

The relationship between Chef Verdon and the Johnsons worsened when they hired a “food coordinator” who cut food costs by stocking the kitchen with frozen and canned vegetables.

The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred when Verdon was asked/ordered to prepare a flavorless, cold purée of garbanzo beans for lunch. He quit, and went on to open the renowned Le Trianon Restaurant in San Francisco.

The Johnsons then turned to Chef Henry Haller. Born in Switzerland, Haller had previously worked at Manhattan’s Hampshire House and made a name for himself in New York’s crowded restaurant scene.

The chef quickly discovered, however, that the president was not especially thoughtful. He often told Haller that a dozen guests were coming to dinner that very night, giving him just a few rushed hours at the end of the day to prepare. But Haller survived and remained the White House Executive Chef for 21 years, cooking for no less than five other American presidents.

Johnson’s favorite dishes: Beef Barbecue, Avocado Dip and Cole Slaw.

 

CHEFS JON HILL and HANS RAFFERT
(Ronald Reagan 1981-1989)

Chef Jon Hill sadly exemplifies America’s lack of enduring job security in the modern era. Hired in October 1987, he was released from his position only four short months later. As the head chef at Fort Lauderdale’s Westin Cypress Creek Hotel, Chef Hill had managed over 100 employees and operated two busy restaurants. As a result, he seemed the ideal choice for White House chef.

But when he learned that his position required attending press conferences and personally meeting with the press, he refused. He believed his food spoke for itself and his place was in the kitchen, not in front of a camera.

Hans Raffert was an assistant chef under Chef Jon Hill during this turbulent time. When asked to replace Chef Hill, the 60-year-old Raffert knew he was accepting an arduous assignment as he was probably too old for such a “strenuous job.” But he accepted the position as he felt  “honored and proud” to serve the Reagans.

Reagan’s favorite dishes: Poached Columbia River Salmon with Sauce Verte, Sesame Breadsticks, Glazed Baby Tomatoes and Eggs Studded with American Sturgeon Caviar, Saddle of Veal, Potatoes Noisette, Artichoke Salad and Raspberry Souffle with Sauce Sabayon.

CHEF PIERRE CHAMBRIN
(George H.W. Bush 1988-1993)

Pierre Chambrin, a classically-trained Parisian chef, started his government career as a sous chef under Chef Raffert. When Raffert resigned due to fatigue and age, Chambrin was promoted to executive chef. Chef Chambrin worked well with the Bushes, who greatly enjoyed his buttery entrees, but his fortunes changed when the Clintons moved into the White House in 1993.

Looking to keep her husband slim, and supported by a wave of younger chefs, Hillary wanted Chambrin to create dishes that were lighter, fresher, more organic and contemporary in their American focus.

Hoping to get her message across, the First Lady made the mistake of sending the classical-trained Chef Chambrin a stack of generic cookbooks featuring low-fat American recipes and brought in American chefs to consult/train him. She even invited a physician to give the White House staff a seminar on diet and healthy cuisine.

These well-meaning actions did not sit well with Chef Chambrin. The 46-year-old chef finally resigned in 1994. After leaving the White House, Chambrin became the executive chef at the Saint Louis Club in St. Louis. The Maitres Cuisiniers de France named him “Chef of the Year” in 2008, and the Academie Culinaire de France bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on him in 2013.

President Bush’s Favorite Food: Raspberry Epsom

CHEF WALTER SCHEIB
(Bill Clinton 1993-2001)

Chef Walter Scheib, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who had worked at a series of prestige hotels, had never thought of replacing Chambrin at the White House. But unknown to the busy chef, his supportive wife secretly sent his resume to the White House. After looking over his application, Mrs. Clinton decided he was perfect for the job because both she and Scheib were enthusiastic promoters of American cuisine.

They both equally believed the White House kitchen had a moral responsibility to utilize the best ingredients from every state. Scheib was so committed to the concept that he convinced Hillary to allow him to serve bison meat at the elite dinner honoring the 50th anniversary of NATO.

Unfortunately, his relationship wasn’t quite as warm with the incoming first family, George W. and Laura Bush, in 2001. The new president preferred more traditional, less-organic fried or baked foods. Laura Bush eventually decided it was time to part ways, and the chef was discharged in 2005. After leaving the White House, Chef Scheib started his own culinary business and even appeared on Iron Chef America.

Clinton’s favorite dishes: Arctic Char and Lobster Sausage with Wild Mushroom Risotto, Braised Fennel, Vegetable Ragout dressed with a Roasted Garlic and Lime Sauce.

 

CHEF SAM KASS (Barack Obama 2009-2017)

When Barack Obama was first elected to the Senate in 2005, he and Michelle asked Sam Kass to take care of all their family meals. Kass helped the family kept their meals healthy and stress free while maintaining a very active lifestyle.

Between 2009 and 2014, Kass kept busy in the kitchen five days a week, and when he arrived in Washington, D.C., he was appointed as the first White House senior policy adviser on nutrition. Before stepping down in 2014, Kass played a key role in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” fitness campaign and used his green thumb to work some botanical magic in the first lady’s garden.

Obama’s favorite dishes: Cheddar Cheese Toast, Guacamole and Nachos, Hawaiian Shaved Ice and Poached Alaska Salmon.

 

CHEF CRISTETA COMERFORD
(George W. Bush 2001-2009 and Donald Trump 2017-Present)

Prior to 2005 the majority of individuals in the White House kitchen answering to the call of “Chef!” were male. Thankfully First Lady Laura Bush broke that outdated tradition when she appointed Cristeta Comerford Executive White House Chef. Born in the Philippines, Comerford moved to the U.S. when she was 23, working at Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel and in Washington D.C. before studying European cuisine in Vienna.

When Comerford learned that Scheib was looking for an assistant chef, she bravely submitted her resume thinking she never had a chance. She beat out 444 other applicants and began working in the White House in 1995. Ten years later she was the first woman and the first minority member to earn the official title of White House Executive chef.

After winning the election in 2008, the Obamas kept Comerford on staff, and when Michelle Obama turned 1,100 square feet of the White House lawn into an impressive vegetable garden (complete with a beehive), a whole new world of cooking was opened up for Comerford.

Currently Chef Comerford is working with First Lady Melania Trump.  At the recent elegant state dinner honoring French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, their joint menu centered on the influence of French cuisine in regional America.

Each invited guest enjoyed goat cheese gateau garnished with tomato jam, buttermilk biscuit crumbles, and lettuces from the still thriving White House garden. Additional courses included a rack of spring lamb and a Carolina gold rice jambalaya prepared in traditional New Orleans style. For dessert, a nectarine tart infused with White House honey and crème fraîche finished the meal.

Chef Andre Rush, a retired Army master chef, is also part of the current White House creative team. As both consultant and freelance chef at White House barbecues, he brings both dedication and skill to the cuisine that represent the heart of what America is truly about. Read more about Chef Rush in this profile in Food and Wine.

George W. Bush’s favorite dishes: Cheeseburger Pizza, Thyme-Roasted Rack of Lamb, Tomato, Fennel and Eggplant Fondue, and Chanterelle Jus.

Trump’s favorite dishes: Red Velvet Cake, Potato Chips, Steak with Ketchup, Commercially Prepared Hamburgers.

From the early days of the United States, the dedicated cooks and professional chefs of the White House have provided a lasting legacy that has documented our nation’s many changes. Truly both the presidents and the nation have been well served by their talents, insights and courage.


Read Part I of The President’s Plate here.

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