Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a White House chef, in charge of anything from state dinners to the First Lady’s morning oatmeal? For Walter Scheib, executive chef under the Clinton and the second Bush administrations, “the culinary component is the easiest part."
In a recent phone interview, Scheib provided an inside look at what is generally a very closed kitchen, where the job of cooking and entertaining presents personal complexities beyond the usual race-against-the-clock, no-excuses pressure. The White House is an historic site, a national park, and a museum, but it is also a private home. Its chef is responsible for all private dining, from movie popcorn to school lunches, and all hosted events, such as state dinners, enormous South Lawn picnics, and guest chef events.
So just how does a White House chef manage party fouls, banquets for visiting dignitaries, and the daily challenge of delivering perfection to the presidential family?
Chef Walter Scheib and family with the Clintons (Photo courtesy theamericanchef.com)
Scheib’s success came down to three main guidelines: knowing his audience; discretion; and organization.
Like any personal chef, the White House chef must master the preferences of his primary clients; pleasing the First Family, specifically the First Lady, is by defintion his or (for current White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford) her primary role. Even if Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other VIPs enjoyed themselves, the First Lady had to be satisfied, or the meal would be considered a failure.
When he started, Scheib was tackling some specific White House entertaining mandates, namely to elevate American cuisine within a previously French-centric repertoire and to transition from plattered to plated service. He also needed to factor in dietary restrictions for the family and its guests: healthy food for the Clintons, Tex-Mex for the Bushes, and the integration of sustainable, organic ingredients along the way.
In his book White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen, Scheib details his constant sensitivity on both an intimate and a large banquet dining scale. He recalls a certain day in which First Lady Clinton was a little down. Feeling a strong compulsion to help, he decided to scrap the usual healthy fare and rush her up a steaming-hot cast-iron skillet full of staff-meal fajitas. She laughed, enjoyed the meal, and called later to thank him.
On that occasion, Scheib knew to diverge from the Clintons' mostly health-conscious, active lifestyles, in which food was of great importance. First Lady Bush chose not to politicize her preference for organic ingredients, which she developed through her Austin-based connections to Whole Foods, but Scheib had to manage this directive in most meals. Both administrations, with the assistance of Scheib and his team, laid the groundwork for the Obamas, who have taken their health-conscious, locavore agenda to a whole new level. First Lady Obama, her White House Garden, and the DIY movement have made a huge impact on the nation's relationship to food.
Scheib and family with the Bushes (Photo courtesy of theamericanchef.com)