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Four More Years Of The President's Chefs

Four More Years Of The President's Chefs

The history of the White House is also a culinary one: from French style, to American Chefs, to a woman for the first time ever

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As of November 6th, Barack Obama has won the 2012 presidential elections. Four more years of living and dining at the White House, drinking President Barak Obama's beer.

Only winners in the Obama family: Michelle Obama and Ann Romney faced off in what has become something of an American tradition, the “Presidential Bake-Off”. This election cycle, the current First Lady won with her tasty (and politically correct) recipe for “White and Dark” chocolate cookies.

These domestic, homey sweets barely scratch the surface of the complex, intricate world of cooking at the White House: it’s an enterprise that involves chefs, sous-chefs pastry chefs, and ranks of workers whose primary objective is to satisfy the needs and appetites of the First Family and their nearly constant rotation of prestigious guests. And of course, tastes and needs tend to change every four years - when the entire staff (as well as the archive of White House recipes) is re-evaluated.

As any historical trivia fan already knows, not every President has had particularly refined tastes or hearty appetites. J.F.Kennedy, apparently, had to almost be dragged to the table, while his wife Jackie tried to hire chef Jacques Pépin, who had cooked for Charles de Gaulle. When Pépin politely declined the post, the elegant (and famed Francophile) First Lady eventually hired René Verdon, who became the White House’s Executive Chef, becoming famous for extravagant dishes like crab, lamb, and strawberries that he served to honored guests like Grace Kelley and Prince Ranieri of Monaco. Verdon, however, left the White House in 1965 after being required to cook a cold garbanzo bean purée for an official event. The tastes in the mid ‘60s were no longer “haute” enough for Verdon, whose successor was the Swiss chef Henry Haller, who remained there for another two decades.

The Haller era was the most enduring but the least public with regards to Presidential menus: Haller served Nixon, Carter, and Reagan – claiming that First Lady Nancy was the most “hands on” with regards to important events. She and Haller would go over sequence and ingredients together, and she’d insist on being served the evening’s entire menu in advance, as kind of a dress rehearsal. The next day, she’d give the chef her feedback—asking him to make adjustments according to certain guests. The chef’s legendary patience was put to the test with the arrival of the King of Arabia who arrived at the White House with 5 suitcases full of his own food, as well as a “food taster” who had to taste every dish the chef served.

It wasn’t an easy job for the Parisian chef Pierre Chambrin, chosen by President George W. Bush: he lasted only two years until falling victim to the trend of promoting a much more “American” style of eating, with foods lower in fat and cholesterol. With his classical French training, Chambrin decided he was not the man for the job.

Representing the true stars-and-striped way of eating was White House chef Walter Scheib, who served for ten years, after a childhood spent in California and Maryland and then a successful career in the restaurants of Washington D.C. When the Clintons arrived, Hillary enthusiastically embraced Scheibs low-fat style, while the Southern-raised Bill still indulged in hamburgers, take away, and barbecue, which would arrive directly from the fast food chains.

The most recent regime change happened under Laura Bush: Scheib resigned, citing differences in styles, and thus arrived the very first woman (and minority) to take over the White House kitchen. The Filipina Cristeta Comerford is one of the very few women to belong to the Club des Chef des Chefs, the exclusive network of chefs who have served world leaders. Comerford has earned the respect and admiration of First Ladies, Presidents and their guests for decades now, and the quintessentially American dinner served in honor of China’s President Hu earned rave reviews for the Obama administration. Comerford’s exceptional talent lies in her ability to give classic American dishes the flavor and taste of all the varied diversity – both ethnic and cultural – that makes the United States so remarkable. And her focus on health is a big plus for fitness-minded Michelle. It looks like chef Comerford’s place in history is set - at least for another four years.

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