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White House Chef

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http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/20...

Phew, I'm glad that question is resolved, I don't know what President elect Obama would have done if this question was left lingering: fix the economy versus hiring a new chef?

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  1. I suspect that was the whole point of just staying with the current chef and moving on. The last thing he needed was a big hoopla over picking a new chef (and, firing the current one).

    1. I like how all of the folks calling for a particular sort of new White House chef apparently didn't notice that someone already had the job and didn't consider that the Obamas might be perfectly happy with that person.

      11 Replies
      1. re: ccbweb

        This is accurate, according to a Newsweek story published January 17, 2009.
        Though Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl and Danny Meyer, among others, callled for a new White House chef who would serve locally grown, organic products, little did they know that the current White House chef, Cristeta Comerford, had been doing exactly that since 2005.

        "It turns out the gastronomers didn't have their facts straight, so they ended up with egg on their faces. While Bush never hid his love for hot dogs and burgers, Comerford had actually been serving organic meals to the outgoing family for years. 'It's too bad we didn't know that,' says Reichl, though she insists that she and her comrades were never calling for Comerford's head. That said, Reichl hopes that the Obamas will be more forthcoming about what's on their plates than the Bushes were."

        That will probably not happen. The White House maintains a firm privacy rule about the living habits of the First Family, and most likely will continue to do so unless the Obamas themselves want to be more open about their eating habits.

        Read the entire story here:
        Why the Obamas Kept Bush's Chef: No White House Food Fight
        http://www.newsweek.com/id/180097

        1. re: maria lorraine

          Good grief. Thanks for posting this, maria lorraine.

          "It's too bad we didn't know about that." I believe completely that they weren't at all calling for someone to be fired. They didn't think about any part of it other than what they wanted to have happen. Which, on some level is fine, that's what a lot of (maybe most) people do; but, when you're setting yourself up as an authority on something and offering your expertise it's especially bad to be clearly ignorant about essential parts of it.

          I don't like Reichl's (and I suppose it's not just her, but it's her in this article) call for the Obamas to "be more forthcoming about what's on their plates." Yes, he's the President and yes people are going to look to him and his family about all kinds of things. But I don't want to read or hear about the horrified reactions of "foodies" because one of the Obamas' daughters ate a Hostess snack cake or some such thing. I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to submit to that level of personal and intimate scrutiny. Making public (and it probably already is to some extent) some of the ways the White House procures food and maybe even to the level of the general kinds of things they're buying might make sense. But are we really expecting the nightly menu of what the family ate? Are we going to count bites of peaches?

          1. re: ccbweb

            Nothing wrong with a hostess snack. I don't know too many foodies who haven't craved one at some point in their lives

          2. re: maria lorraine

            What's wrong with these people???
            Reichl "dreams of a day when the White House kitchen has its own press office and regularly publishes its menu." Like the public schools?
            Can't we give the President and his family some privacy? Is it really our business if they have Pop Tarts for breakfast?
            No matter what the President and his family do, SOMEBODY in America or the rest of the world WILL have something to say about it. They can't please everybody.
            Remember when Bush 41 made an idle comment about not "liking" broccoli? He eats it. It's just not his favorite. People are still making jokes.
            A couple of times on the campaign trail, Bush 41 ate some pork rinds and the media made a big deal out of it. When he got to White House, they had laid in cases of them. Guess what? They're not a particular favorite nor a regular snack.

            Was it Mark Twain who said that what you don't know isn't as dangerous as what you THINK you know that's just WRONG.
            The Three Food "Experts" just "knew" that George Bush had to be a poor eater so they butted in. They probably don't like him anyway.
            The Executive Chef before Comerford had also been serving local, organic food.
            Nobody had felt it necessary to check in with Reichl, et al. Wasn't their business although they could have known that if they had read the food section of the Washington Post regularly.

            I think we need to give the Obamas a break.

            1. re: MakingSense

              PORK FAT LOVERS of the world UNITE!!

              This emphasis on healthy and organic foods is just wrong. America needs more cholesterol and animal fat, cause fat is where its at. Comerford should be fired for not serving cracklin's, pork rinds, Porterhouses and using lard at every turn.

              Fat, its what made America GREEEAAAAT!!!

              1. re: Phaedrus

                You do understand that no one gets sarcasm online, right? (Myself included sometimes, unfortunately.) You're probably going to get a good talking to about this from someone.

                1. re: ccbweb

                  Sigh. I guess you're right. Its so lonely out here without sarcasm.

                  1. re: Phaedrus

                    good chuckles here...keep it flowin', Phaedus.
                    So wish I could type a dipthong...

                    1. re: Phaedrus

                      Ahh... ya let me down! You were being sarcastic??!! UPFLA (United Pork Fat Lovers of America) were just getting ready to cheer you on.

                    2. re: ccbweb

                      Hey! I knew Phaedrus was just joshin'! You're not alone, P.

                2. re: maria lorraine

                  Addendum: The New York Times reports today, in an article by Marian Burros, that the Obamas have hired a chef from Chicago:

                  Obamas Hire Chef From Chicago
                  “Sam Kass, a chef who cooked for the Obamas while they were living in Chicago, is now cooking for them in the White House...Mr. Kass would not be the only cook preparing the family’s meals, but “he knows what they like, and he happens to have a particular interest in healthy food and local food.

                  "Walter Scheib, the White House chef for the Clintons and Bushes, said Mr. Kass would be a tremendous resource for Ms. Comerford, the first woman to hold the post of executive chef. “This will make her job much easier because she will understand better and faster what they like,” he said. “She doesn’t have to spend months reading the tea leaves.”

                  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/29/us/...

                  Kass specializes in what his website describes as “clean, healthy food,” shopping “mainly from local farms” and buying wines from “small sustainable wineries.”

                  ---

                  Oops, just noticed that taos beat me to the punch below.

              2. I agree -- much as I'm personally passionate about food, let's have some perspective. All the special interests groups who feel they've been ignored during the last administration are lining up to get their own issues addressed. But to paraphrase what Benjamin Franklin said about independence (at least, in the movie!), first things first, if we don't secure the economy, what difference will the rest make?

                35 Replies
                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Benjamin was a smart man, but what he should have said was: first things first, if we don't secure HEALTHCARE, what difference will the rest make?....if you don't have your health, what good is money?

                  As for the Chef pick. Being a woman, of course, I applaud their decision to keep her on staff, especially if she's doing a great job. My sense is that there's no partisan politics in the kitchen...

                  1. re: Raquel

                    It does make me wonder why the previous guy got canned. Refusal to serve pork rinds? Not real familiar with Texas style Barbecue?

                    1. re: Phaedrus

                      By all accounts the Bushes ate a very healthy diet (George Bush is a fitness maniac) and Mrs. Bush is a strong supporter of organic and seasonal produce.

                      1. re: Phaedrus

                        I just finished reading his book (White House Chef, appropriately enough). Although he really does not kiss and tell, apparently in the second term Mrs. Bush hired a new social secretary and she was putting her own stamp on things. It was actually a very interesting book. He cooked for both the Clintons and Bushes-- he clearly much preferred the more eclectic tastes of the Clintons.

                        Oh and according to him, Mrs. Bush enjoyed pretty much the same lunch menus that he'd served to Mrs. Clinton (healthy salads and such) but that Mr. Bush nearly always had either a burger, a grilled cheese sandwich, or a peanut butter and honey sandwich for lunch.

                        1. re: DGresh

                          and just another note; I got this book out of the library after seeing Mr. Scheib (the chef who was "fired"-- it was after four years of working for the Bushes) write a letter to the NYTimes essentially taking issue with all those folks who were saying "lets use local, organic, etc etc". Hillary actually instituted a garden on the roof of the white house for the maximum "local" you can get, and both she and Mrs Bush were very interested in all of those issues. The chef who replaced him, who the Obamas are apparently retaining, was hired by him, and presumably has similar sensibilities.

                      2. re: Raquel

                        Folks, while we're glad the President-elect is focusing on larger issues than the White House chef, here on Chowhound, those larger issues are off topic. We'd ask that everyone please keep this conversation from becoming a general discussion about issues like health care and economy, and at least somewhat related to the subject of the thread. Thanks!

                        1. re: Raquel

                          I study and teach medical ethics, I have a chronic illness and think that health care is so important that it's pretty well impossible to overstate its importance. Without a secure economy, there's no way to provide any kind of health care to anyone at all.

                          I also think it's great that the first woman to be White House chef will continue to work in that capacity. It doesn't seem like a position that someone should be dismissed from simply because the occupant changed. If the Obamas find that she isn't able to meet their food needs, that'd be a different thing but I can't think of a good reason to ask her to resign before they have a chance to find out. And I can't imagine that they actually spent much time thinking about it either...as you and Ruth and Phaedrus note: more important things to be worried about.

                          1. re: ccbweb

                            "It doesn't seem like a position that someone should be dismissed from simply because the occupant changed."

                            This ISN'T a position that changes with great regularity. However, of the last 6 chefs, the first one served as long as the last 5 combined.

                            1. re: ferret

                              Do you think that has to do with more rapid job turnover in our society generally? (I'm really writing off the cuff here.) It seems to me as I think about it that there's a lot more fluidity in the job market than there was a generation ago. I'm in my mid 30-s and I know a lot of people my parents age who were in the same job for their whole lives but I don't know many people my age who have stayed in the same job more than about 5 or 6 years.

                              The White House, in particular, seems like the kind of a place that experience and institutional memory would be particularly important. There's such a varied set of requirements and expectations (from what I've read anyhow) and learning all of that seems a tall order. It seems like it might be pretty disruptive to try to have new people learning it frequently.

                              1. re: ccbweb

                                This is really hazy in my memory and it seems there was a change in the state dinners going from the less formal to the more formal, I think it was going from the Carter to the Reagan White House. I think the comment was that after so many years of less formal dining, the Reagans were brgining the formal state dinners back and the chefs had to really furrow their brows to recall exactly what they did and how they did it. So a long response to a short question, institutional memory is very important at the White House, even if they do document everything.

                                1. re: Phaedrus

                                  The majority of the staff in the White House kitchen is very long serving and there wasn't any "furrowing of brows" when the Reagans arrived.
                                  Official entertaining has always been "international" or in the diplomatic style with Russian or what is often called French service. The only deviation was during the Clinton term when they used plated or restaurant-style service.
                                  The Eisenhowers employed military staff more heavily and Jackie Kennedy famously brought in a French chef whom Lady Bird John kept on. He stayed for many years and I think lasted through the Ford Administration.
                                  The Carters were something of a break in formality but they were there only four years.
                                  That didn't make a significant difference because the permanent staff still retained the institutional memory. That staff doesn't change with Administrations and many stay for decades. There are enlisted Navy in the kitchen as well.

                                  The only meals that get public attention are State Dinners for which the White House releases menus. The White House chef is responsible for at least three meals a day for the First Family as well as official representational meals and receptions on a daily basis. There are coffees, teas, breakfasts, luncheons and small dinners on a regular basis that get little to no publicity.
                                  The White House kitchen is responsible for feeding thousands each year and over 10,000 during the Christmas season alone.

                                  1. re: MakingSense

                                    I was doing some research on this when the question first came up, and I never did manage to figure out if the White House chef has responsibility for overseeing the White House mess (which is run by the Navy), or at least, the extent to which the various kinds of food service are coordinated and by whom. Sounds like you might know!

                                    1. re: MakingSense

                                      What is Russian and/or French service? How does it work?

                                      1. re: mordacity

                                        The food for the main course, and sometimes for other courses, is arranged on platters which are offered to diners who serve themselves what they want from the selection offered. If you hate the veggies, for example, you can skip them or take a token serving.

                                        This is the style used in embassies, etc. so the international set is used to this form of service. That's why it continues to be used for State Dinners and formal entertaining at the White House.
                                        Some courses might be plated but the main would be served this way.

                                        For most of us, this style of service is a complete anachronism. It's little used outside of the most formal diplomatic situations. Who has servants trained to do this anymore? Caterers in Washington and New York have a hard time finding them.
                                        What is now generally referred to as "French service" is actually "service a la russe," which began to be used at the end of the 19th century in France after French service became unwieldy.
                                        This article may make your head spin. http://www.hertzmann.com/articles/200...
                                        What we use now for regular meals is actually closer to old French service with serving bowls and platters placed on the table.
                                        It's only been recently that you would ever have seen prepared plates presented to diners at a nice seated dinner - restaurant-style. That was reserved for homes where your mother or cook knew exactly what you wanted to eat, or in a restaurant where you had ordered it.
                                        Otherwise, no one would or should presume to fill your plate for you.

                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                          Who has servants, period? This style of service is very labor intensive. But especially in a diplomatic situation, it's wise to let guests at ceremonial meals serve themselves, since they might have allergies, cultural or religious dietary restrictions, etc. that they might not feel comfortable discussing.

                                          Making Sense, did you see my question above about what the relationship between the White House chef and the White House mess? Can you shed any light?

                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                            The White House "mess" is nicer than it sounds. "Mess" is a military term for a dining room. The mess is available to White House staff and it's run by the Navy assigned to the White House. Everything is under the direction of the White House Executive Chef, currently Cristeta Comerford. This isn't exactly the glamorous job that a lot of people seem to think it is. There is a lot of staff in this section with Executive Sous Chef and people under him. Pastry Chefs, etc. There are meals for the First Family, some of which are plain old burgers and salads. Some are lunches for the President and his guests that are working meals. Others for fancy lunches and dinners, receptions and coffees for groups and domestic and foreign visitors. There is a constant entertaining schedule in addition to the day-to-day stuff going on. There's also a plain old cafeteria in the Old EOB, which is part of the White House complex. That could be exactly what you would find in your office building. Salad by weight, a hot special of the day, a grill, etc. There are a couple of thousand people working long hours within the White House complex and they all have to be fed, sometimes three meals a day or more.

                                            You are right about the "French service" being a discreet solution for formal meals. Many people are hesitant to ask for special favors when they accept a White House invitation. This allows them to take what they can eat and pass on what they can't. The White House is sensitive to dietary restrictions and does go out of their way to accommodate. That has been going on for many Administrations but it is still easy to fall through the cracks when people don't tell them.
                                            Yeah, it is labor intensive but the White House represents all Americans and puts its best foot forward whoever is in there. It's worth the effort to do it right and as best they can.
                                            The staff is top-notch and it's really touching to see the pride that they take in their work. They always shine.

                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                              Thanks. In the poking around I did (it's hard to google anything about the White House!), I never found anything that specifically stated whether the White House Chef was responsible (in an executive capacity) for the all the food service in the White House or only food prepared for the first family and guests/invitees. They usually talk about the chef in terms of the latter and about the Navy running the former, but as I said, it was unclear whether the White House Chef had oversight for the operations that the Navy runs on a day-to-day basis.

                                              When you know that, you realize that it really isn't a celebrity chef gig, nor is it a job for someone who doesn't have extensive experience in an institutional food service position. As I speculated in an earlier thread, it's more like running a large hotel kitchen (banquets, "room service" multiple dining rooms with different kinds of food and service) than a restaurant.

                                              I wasn't being critical of the fact the French service is labor intensive, btw. I was just pointing out that it's a style of service that requires the kind of staff that very few people -- or institutions -- have anymore.

                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                Doubt you'll find much on Google. They're pretty discreet over there. Even the purveyors don't advertise like in England "We supply the White House!!"
                                                You'll see bits and pieces in articles and interviews that you can gradually put together.
                                                We came to Washington at the end of the Nixon Administration. My husband was part of the WH Press Corps for several years. My various jobs involved contacts with the many areas of the WH in every Administration since then and I've always had friends who worked and volunteered there like most people in town. From people in the florist shop to aides to the President.
                                                You learn how it works and what the systems are.
                                                There is a lot of info at the website of the White House Historical Association, including lots of great old photos. They were given the UPI photo archives when that wire service closed.
                                                http://www.whitehousehistory.org/

                                                I think you are correct that the main responsibility of the White House Executive Chef is overseeing a very elegant hotel kitchen. I doubt that she's crunching numbers and ordering celery.
                                                It has to be kept at the highest level because guests expect it - and so do we Americans.
                                                I was personally happy that Mrs. Obama elected to keep Cristeta Comerford on. Keeps the drama down and emphasizes the continuity of the President's House.
                                                Seems like we did better when we weren't worried about a celebrity chef in the White House.

                                                1. re: MakingSense

                                                  Maybe we can raise some money for the federal budget by having the Food Network do a Next White House Chef contest with the recipes being featured at Applebees. With contests like: create an all pork banquet for the Arab league, or a seafood and cheese dish for the Israeli and Italian embassadors.

                                            2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                              The White House does intensive research on dietary laws and allergies of the guests at State Dinners. No diplomat wants to eat family style.

                                              1. re: Ideefixed

                                                Why is it that no diplomat wants to eat family style?

                                                1. re: ccbweb

                                                  Passing platters and bowls in white tie? And some cultures make a big deal out of who touches food. etc.

                                                  1. re: Ideefixed

                                                    I was more bemused by the huge generalization about who constitute diplomats and the further notion that one could draw such a conclusion about such a group.

                                                    All fair game, though, I suppose.

                                                    1. re: Ideefixed

                                                      The guests aren't passing platters. The servers are carrying platters, from which guests serve themselves. If there are proper implements, no one should be touching the food. Actually, fewer people are touching the food in this style of service -- formally plated food virtually requires people to touch to food to arrange it.

                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                        Actually, yes they are passing platters if we're talking family style. A loose definition of "family style" dining is a sit-down meal where dishes of food are placed on the table from which diners serve themselves.

                                                        And so, I can't really see Prime Minister Harper or Brown wanting to eat this way with President Obama.

                                                        1. re: Raquel

                                                          We're not talking family style, we're talking French service, which is actually the most formal style of dinner service. As Ruth and MakingSense note, servers present each diner with the platter at his or her place. They're not on the table, and the guests don't pass them.

                                                          If heads of state have attended any formal state dinners or their equivalent anywhere, they are likely familiar with French service. And who knows, it may be that in reality they would, indeed, prefer a casual true family-style dinner with the president to the pomp of these formal banquets. Depends on the individual, and we don't know them personally. It's not as if anyone would behave as they do with their own families or close friends, regardless.

                                                          1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                            Actually, someone WAS talking 'family style' and that's what I was replying to. I'm well aware of the differences between 'French Service' and 'family style'. Having been to some pretty high-profile political dinners myself, I have to say I'd find it hard to believe that in that kind of setting, black tie, gowns, etc. that anyone would enjoy family style, regardless of their personality. Home eating is home eating, and formal dinners are just that.

                                                            1. re: Raquel

                                                              You hit reply to the wrong person, then. Ideefixed introduced the idea of "family style" out of nowhere and I questioned the broad, blanket generalization contained in his/her post. Beyond that, there was no discussion of "family style."

                                                              1. re: ccbweb

                                                                No, I don't think so. Ruth replied to Ideefixed, and I replied to Ruth, trying to follow on the same thread idea.

                                                                1. re: Raquel

                                                                  I don't know where the idea of "family style" came from, but I don't think anyone said that white tie events were being served family style, which is what you objected to. All I can see, in fact, is someone saying that no diplomat wants to eat family style.

                                                                  1. re: Raquel

                                                                    Ideefixed was reacting to the idea of food being served from platters at state dinners, introduced in MakingSense's detailed description of French service above, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5865...

                                                                    Ruth replied to Ideefixed, clarifying how French service works (servers presenting platters), since French service is what has been discussed in this subthread. You replied to Ruth, who was not discussing family-style dining, but French service. Read the posts from the one I linked down to see what Ruth was really responding about.

                                                                    1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                                                      Very impressive yours and Ruth's investigative reporting back on my posts! Thanks for clearing this up for EVERYONE. I for one feel MUCH better.

                                                2. re: MakingSense

                                                  thanks for the description. I read about that style of service in Walter Scheib's book and was kind of astounded; it sounded so odd to me that one would serve themselves at a "formal" dinner! Apparently Bill and Hill instituted (generally) a more restaurant style for dinners at the White House.

                                        2. re: ferret

                                          And I'm betting that having 'White House Chef' on your resume would be a pretty good door opener for other positions.

                                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      Re: "fix the economy versus hiring a new chef." I think they're probably having enough trouble wrestling w/ the question of the new First Dog.

                                    3. Here’s a link to an NPR interview with former White House Chef Walter Scheib. Interesting that he says in these times of the celebrity chef the job of the White House Chef is to be the anti-celebrity chef. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st...

                                      1. The position of chef at the White House is an extraordinarily important one. Never mind the fact that the Obamas will have no time for cooking, and the fact that they are raising 2 beautiful girls, the White House is the setting for innumerable top-level diplomatic dinners and occasions, many of them incredibly impactful politically, many of them attended by people with specific dietary requirements.

                                        What, in the end, is more important than food? Not much.

                                        14 Replies
                                        1. re: uptown jimmy

                                          So, with Mrs. Obama's mother moving in too, what does that do to the White House Chef's job.

                                          1. re: Phaedrus

                                            It only means that there are five people instead of four living in the Family Quarters on the Second Floor of the White House. The Executive Staff of the Kitchen acquire and prepare the meals according to the First Lady's instructions.
                                            The President pays for the family's food - not the taxpayers. They also pay rent for their residence. There are quite a few positions in the Federal government for which housing is provided (some where it's required for security reasons) for which the officials are billed.
                                            There is a formal dining room called the President's Dining Room in the Family Quarters on the Second Floor and also a private kitchen. The kitchen is kept stocked with whatever the family wants so they can cook for themselves and fix snacks whenever they like. If the kids want cereal or a bowl of ice cream, they can get it without having to call a butler.

                                            There is a room off the State Dining Room on the Main Floor of the White House that is called the Family Dining Room but it really doesn't serve that purpose. It's used for official occasions for small numbers of guests.

                                            Why do people think it's so odd that Mrs. Robinson is moving into the White House with the Obamas? Mrs. Truman's and Mrs. Eisenhower's mothers both lived at the White House. Mrs. Clinton's and Mrs. Bush's (43) mothers spent long periods of time there as well.
                                            The Obama girls were cared for by their grandmother in Chicago while their mother worked and while she campaigned for her husband. They're happy with their grandmother and she'll be a wonderful stable influence while their parents are busy with their hectic schedules. The Obamas will have to travel and often be out in the evening. This sounds like a glorious idea.
                                            Mrs. Robinson can be the Official First Grandmother.

                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                              That is why I asked. The last time there were children that young in the White House was Amy Carter, and Miss Lillian didn't move in to take care of her. This was the first time that the mother-in-law will have a considerable say in how the family will live on a day to day basis.

                                              1. re: Phaedrus

                                                We probably should stop thinking "mother-in-law" because that word has come to mean Evil to so many people.
                                                Mrs. Robinson is Michelle Obama's mother.
                                                She appears to be a lovely woman who is close to her family and has done a lovely job of taking care of those two darling girls who seem to have such good manners.
                                                There is NO indication that she is going to move in and take over.
                                                Not to mention that the White House staff is trained to take orders from the First Lady (FLOTUS) and the permanent staff. There is the White House Usher and Curator and an entire hierarchy in place in addition to the East Wing Staff that Mrs. Obama will hire.
                                                Even on the odd chance that Mrs. Robinson should overstep her bounds, the staff will quietly "clear" things with the "powers that be."

                                                We have no reason to assume that there are anything other than the best of relationships in the Obama family.
                                                Let's give them the benefit of the our good wishes.
                                                All mothers-in-laws are not the stuff of horror movies.

                                                BTW, Miss Lillian was sui generis. She was around a lot. That was probably enough. There were more than enough members of the Carter family in residence at any given time. Amy wasn't alone.

                                                1. re: MakingSense

                                                  All good points. Even the First Lady doesn't really "run" the White House. She has the final say on what goes on and sets the "tone" but there's a huge permanent staff that does all the day-to-day "running." The First Lady has plenty to do, which is why Mrs. Robinson is going to be helping with the girls.

                                                  Living in the White House is complicated: you have people taking care of you and access to almost anything you want, but there are also a lot of things you can't do. Some of the stories about the Obama family have mentioned sleepovers. Those girls are going to need sleepovers, because their ability to socialize in other children's homes is going to be limited. Can you imagine have the Secret Service tag along on your play dates and having to screen all your friends and okay their homes? I'm sure that's some of the thinking behind getting a dog: it will give them someone to play with and something to do outside without leaving the White House grounds.

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    Remember that Harry Truman said that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
                                                    Maybe the worst thing about living in the White House is that no matter what you do, somebody will have something to say about it.
                                                    Even now, all the Nations foodies are clamoring to tell the Obamas what and how they should EAT for God's sake.
                                                    They want them to dig up the entire South Lawn, which is National Park Service land, and plant a vegetable garden. Among other things, that's where Marine One, the President's helicopter, has to land for security purposes, and the lawn is used for public events throughout the year.
                                                    Both the Clintons and the Bushes used local and organic foods, all from the best American sources, but the carping never stopped. There was always someone who thought they should have used something different, made a "better" choice, a different wine, a more "creative" menu, something more "cutting edge," always to please someone who thought that they should have been pleased over the actual guests who were invited.

                                                    Life in the White House must be a wonderful experience but it is constraining.
                                                    As you say, Ruth, there are lots of things you can't do. Learning to live within those parameters and to ignore the unjust criticisms is part of the burden of leadership.

                                                    in all of this, people might forget that the White House isn't about the food. When guests walk out, Americans don't want them to remember the dinner like they do when they leave a restaurant.
                                                    We want them to think what a great country this is and how well represented we are by the President and First Lady.

                                                  2. re: MakingSense

                                                    Anyone who's seen the widely circulated photo of President Obama and his wife's mother sitting with hands clasped on election night can surmise that they have a close relationship, anything but adversarial.

                                                2. re: MakingSense

                                                  I knew about the First Family paying for their food, but not that they paid rent. I'm not sure it's fair to force someone to live in a certain place in a certain way and then charge them rent. It's not like Obama could say, oh, let's just stay in Hyde Park, or in the DC apartment. I hope the rent is reasonable!

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    The president certainly doesn't pay rent to use the White House. It, along with the staff, is a perk that comes with the job.

                                                    I'm surprised that they pay for the food. Is there a system that separates the family's private meals from the State dinners? Or the private dinners with important guests? The President does an incredible amount of entertaining so I assumed the food would also be a perk of the job.

                                                    1. re: Roland Parker

                                                      Yup. I was taking Making Sense at his word about the rent, but I've read in several places that they pay for their food. The White House usher (head of household staff) keeps account and bills them for their personal food costs (not including meals served as part of their official duties, such as state dinners).

                                                      I found this interesting article on the history of presidential expenses, although it was written in 1974, so some of it is out of date: http://www.americanheritage.com/artic...

                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                        "... at her word..."

                                                      2. re: Roland Parker

                                                        There is a complicated accounting system that is used for many officials who live in government housing with staff and who eat some of their meals as part of their jobs and some as private meals.
                                                        Most do pay rent even though it's not at market value. The White House and Embassies are among them. Some national security posts are also included because the office holders have to have secure telephone lives, restricted access, etc.
                                                        Things we don't think about.
                                                        My husband once had such a job and I did the bookkeeping. Once you figure out the rationale, it all makes sense.
                                                        If we had friends over for dinner, it was private. If we entertained government officials, it was on the government tab. The staff was always on the US - they came with the house for which we paid rent. The staff's food was paid for by the government but ours was our own responsibility.
                                                        We had separate refrigerators, etc. For official entertaining, we always kept separate receipts specific to that event so it could be charged to a specific budget or department. Had a liquor closet/wine cellar and kept records of corkage.
                                                        The entire system is similar to the per diem rules for regular government employees. After all, the President and everyone else in the Administration are OUR employees. They work for us, remember???

                                                        1. re: MakingSense

                                                          I'm curious about this arrangement of paying rent for the use of the official residence, whether it's the White House or an ambassadorial residence abroad. I live in Dubai where I pay my villa's rent out of the housing allowance as part of my expat package with the firm, but I had never considered that the US ambassador to the UAE would pay for the use of the ambassadorial residence.

                                                          How does this arrangement work? Quite a few ambassadors are well-connected friends of the president, others are career foreign service officers. Does the US ambassador to Paris pay for use of the US embassay out of his pocket, a sum separate from his salary, or is he given a salary that includes a certain designated sum to cover his rent?

                                                          1. re: Roland Parker

                                                            About 30% of ambassadorial appointments are political, not all of whom are wealthy friends of the president. There are many who have served as lower ranking appointees, have no personal wealth, and may not even have been campaign contributors.
                                                            They are paid a salary which of course may not mean much to a wealthy appointee. The salary is probably about $150,000.
                                                            If I remember, the rent is nominal. About 5% or so of that salary. I think it's taken as a regular payroll deduction.

                                                            The most difficult thing is the entertaining allowance. Tough. It's pretty much the same amount wherever you are in the world. It's easy to blow that on one important dinner party in Paris while you can really make it stretch for a long time in some developing countries.
                                                            After it's gone, all entertaining is out of the Ambassador's own pocket.
                                                            Maybe it's a good thing to send rich folks to expensive world capitals and let them foot the bill for America's official entertaining.

                                                            Imagine how the costs start running up for flowers, candles, wine, etc. not to mention the top quality food products for an elegant dinner for 12, 24, or more people. Plus cocktail parties, receptions, National day celebrations with hundreds of invitees, etc.
                                                            Then think that an Ambassador is expected to do this regularly as a requirement of his job.
                                                            It's a serious burden for the career foreign service officers and appointees without personal wealth if they are posted to an expensive capital.
                                                            Probably why the Court of St. James, Paris, London, Rome, etc. are usually political and virtually always wealthy Americans.

                                                            The White House has a budget that is approved by Congress. I don't think that the President has to dig down into his own pocket for entertaining unless it's personal.
                                                            Obviously, State Dinners and other entertaining of foreign dignitaries is critical and some of that responsibility is shared with the State Department which bears some of the burden.
                                                            Bush had a small number of full-blown State visits but a very high number of official visits. He preferred to entertain at smaller lunches, dinners, etc. or to make use of Camp David or Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford for important allies. I doubt that cost-cutting was the prime motive but it did help and it also eliminated the need for reciprocal dinners and all the attendant folderol of State visits which are very expensive. Security may have also been a concern.

                                              2. Discussing the White House chef is always fun. I like seeing the menus of the state dinners. If you haven't already seen this article.... it is also kind of fun. They interviewed a bunch of "celebrity chefs" on what they would cook for the inaugural dinner if it was up to them. Some delicious and some just funny ideas.
                                                http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27843320/

                                                1. This thread is making me laugh. This is the first presidency where I have EVER heard anyone notice whom the POTUS is hiring as the White House Chef. It may be only because I joined CH recently. I don't know. It may be because Obama is under that much bigger of a microscope. All I know is, does ANYONE, other than serious foodies and civics geeks, ever know who the White House chef is? I never knew. I could never name the person. The most I can remember about White House chefs is that the chef for Bush1 couldn't prepare broccoli, but that it was back on the menu for the Clintons. It blows me away that suddenly people seem to be noticing who cooks for the president.

                                                  15 Replies
                                                  1. re: Avalondaughter

                                                    On the positive side, this shows that people are very interested in their leader again. People are starting to care about the president and his family and their habits because they feel like they have a stake in his election.

                                                    On the negative side, you can look at it as a nation dealing with the fact that this is the first African American president,and there is a huge amount of curiosity and exotica ssociated with this presidency, a peacock in a gilded cage effect if you will.

                                                    1. re: Phaedrus

                                                      People have a stake in every election and each Inauguration bring this same kind of excitement.
                                                      There's no "very interested in their leader again" any more than there was for Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, or George Bush. Their partisan were all thrilled to death but all Americans welcomed them as the new leaders and wanted to know about them.
                                                      For the most part, every White House does have some effect on food and culture in America.
                                                      We need to give them some time and space to see what kind of personal stamp they put on it.
                                                      All previous Presidents and First Ladies have "done it their way." We're going to have to wait to see how the Obamas do it.

                                                      1. re: MakingSense

                                                        Obama has more of a pop icon vibe than a President typically does, so it's possible people actually are more interested than usual. Plus, the mainstream news media's love affair with Obama is driving up interest. Whether the population's interest is anything more than trivial, I don't know.

                                                        1. re: Chimayo Joe

                                                          OH, come on! The same was true of the Kennedys. All those photos of the family sailing off Cape Cod and playing touch football. If anything, the "pop icon vibe" was more intense, especially after the relatively staid Eisenhower years.
                                                          It may have been 16 years ago, but it's hard to forget Clinton playing that sax on Arnenio Hall's show with those dark glasses. The media followed his every early morning jog and pit stop at McDonald's. Have you forgotten Doe's Eat Place?

                                                          This is a combination of the MSM and the entertainment industry's support for Democrats.
                                                          You're right that their "love affair" is driving up the "media" attention but whether that translates to ordinary people actually identifying with the Obamas on a personal level is another matter.
                                                          Will they clamor for some special recipe like they did for LBJ's chili? Or Carter's grits or BBQ? Or even Reagan's Jelly Bellies?
                                                          All those guys had distinctive personalities but there was something that regular folks saw as accessible.
                                                          Anybody could cook up a pot of chili - just like the president. Why! Even from his very own recipe! Just like they serve in the White House.

                                                          1. re: ccbweb

                                                            Folks, We've had to remove a few posts. We know it's easy to wander off topic here, but please help us to keep this thread on topic, by discussing something related to food in the White House.

                                                    2. re: Avalondaughter

                                                      I've lived within a day's drive of DC for much of my life and who the chef was has always been important chatter. Long before the internet existed, the news media covered the chef and there were always articles on POTUS' favorite meals that the chef was expected to produce. There were also critics of the food.

                                                      Nothing new here.

                                                      1. re: Avalondaughter

                                                        Avalondaughter,
                                                        This might be the first time YOU heard anyone notice who the POTUS hired as the White House chef, but here in DC it is a topic of conversation with every new administration. Several former WH chefs have restaurants here in town, excellent ones in fact, and in the DC food community, it is a major big deal.

                                                        1. re: dinwiddie

                                                          The Kennedys' chef, Rene Verdon, was probably the most famous White House chef. After he left the White House he had a restaurant in San Francisco for many years, and the fact that he was a former White House chef was always an important publicity angle for his restaurant.

                                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                            Anybody who has eaten at Palena here in DC knows the work of former WH chef Frank Ruta. Palena has long been considered one of the finer restaurants in DC.

                                                            1. re: dinwiddie

                                                              Ruta wasn't THE White House chef. He was the Executive Sous Chef and he met pastry chef Ann Amernick at the White House. I think she still does Palena's desserts.
                                                              Ruta dished the dirt on the changes in the White House kitchen over the years in a recent edition of the City paper. Mostly the chefs stay on from Admin. to Admin. Henry Haller stayed from LBJ through Nixon, Ford, and Carter until he retired under Reagan.
                                                              Then the story gets interesting....
                                                              Read on, kiddies...
                                                              http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/bl...

                                                              1. re: MakingSense

                                                                hey, just to note that sous chef *is* an executive position, and that being the sous chef at the WH is kinda like being co-pilot of the space shuttle-- that's to say, a pretty durn important role, with its own responsibilities & the WH sous is at the top of her/his game. the sous is not the exec's lackey, s/he is in charge of her/his own personnel & specific duties and is in charge whenever the exec is not around. the sous will be in charge of lots of the meals, or parts of them. it would take a towering pyramid of small-restaurant chefs (with yours truly squashed on the bottom) to equal the WH sous. i am sure that f. ruta's skills put him amidst the best chefs in america.

                                                                1. re: soupkitten

                                                                  Sorry. Certainly didn't mean that as a put-down in any way. Nobody would if they'd eaten at Palena, his restaurant in DC - one of our local best.
                                                                  The WH exec chef is the one who gets the media attention but the entire team is top flight and there's no way they could accomplish what they do at the level that they do it at if they weren't all extremely talented.
                                                                  Even just the cultural demands for the international guests is a formidable challenge and the volume of food that they produce on a steady basis is astonishing - all of it top quality.
                                                                  You're right - these would be some of the top chefs anywhere.

                                                        2. re: Avalondaughter

                                                          Chowhound hasn't been around long enough and the last pick was a mid-term replacement. A White House thread doesn't surprise me much given the inanity of many of the OCD threads that pop up here.

                                                          1. re: ferret

                                                            The last change was unusual because Mrs. Bush hired the first woman head chef and also promoted someone from within the existing White House kitchen.
                                                            Both were nice changes and the chef has done an excellent job.

                                                            It's a real tribute to her that Mrs. Obama has chosen to keep her on as well as a nice signal that the Obamas aren't going to try to be flashy and provide some big noisy distraction when there's so much going on in the country right now.
                                                            Most of the food under Mrs. Bush was already healthy, locally sourced, and much of it was organic, so Mrs. Obama should have an easy time working with the kitchen as she adapts it to her family and personal style.
                                                            Looks like the food transition should be pretty easy in the White House.

                                                            1. re: MakingSense

                                                              But how does the chef feel about soulf dood from the southside of Chicago?

                                                              (See Obama as food critic on "Check Please".)

                                                        3. I wonder why, if the Bush's love her so much, how come they're not taking her with them? Surely Barbara won't be cooking their meals when they get to Dallas? I'm sure they'll be employing a cook or chef in their home as all multi-billionaires do...

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: Raquel

                                                            The current White House Executive Chef has worked at the White House for many years and has family in the Washington area. The White House staff rarely leaves with a First Family. They're the institutional memory of the place. That's why it works so smoothly from one Administration to the next.
                                                            There is a big difference in cooking for a family of two people and the type of production and large scale food service preparation that goes on at the White House.

                                                            BTW, Mrs. Bush's first name is Laura. Barbara is the name of her daughter and her mother-in-law, the wife of President George HW Bush.
                                                            President George W Bush is NOT a "multi-billionaire." Although the family made money on the sale of the Texas Rangers, they are not extravagantly wealthy.

                                                            1. re: Raquel

                                                              Presumably the Bushes couldn't take her with them without her consent.

                                                            2. As a little side note, I want to express my great pride in Cristeta Comerford's accomplishments as a chef... on behalf of all Filipino Americans. Mabuhay!

                                                              9 Replies
                                                              1. re: fresnohotspot

                                                                My aunt is somehow friends with Ms. Comerford's brother (only adding further fuel to my belief that all Filipinos in the US know each other) and so has been tracking her accomplishments as a chef even before her White House days. When my interest in cuisine became apparent, she lost not a minute holding up Ms. Comerford as a role model to which I could aspire; regardless of their politics, I think all Filipinos, being inveterate foodies, can be very proud of her achievements.

                                                                1. re: fresnohotspot

                                                                  Oongay-e, tama 'ganda lang. Kung puwede magtanong, taga saan ang pamilya sia sa Pilipinas?

                                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                    I called my aunt to ask where Ms. Comerford is from and now I'm sad to report my family connection is not to Ms. Comerford's brother, but an unrelated Filipino chef who worked for Bush 41. Both he and Chef Comerford have been individually held up as examples of Filipino success in the US, but I combined the two into one great symbol of Filipino prowess in my mind. Allegedly Bush père has a soft spot for certain Filipino dishes. No word yet if that includes dinuguan or sinigang na kanduli.

                                                                    1. re: JungMann

                                                                      Bet all the Bushes and Obamas would like bulalo!

                                                                    2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                      Sam, I grew up in Manila and Quezon City and I fondly remember many weekend trips to Los Banos to enjoy the hot spring pools. I believe LB might have been one of your old stomping grounds with the rice institute. Those weekend excursions were the basis for many fine meals in provinces surrounding Manila.

                                                                      Cristeta was born in Manila and earned a degree in food technology at the University of the Philippines before immigrating to the United States in 1985. She is a Manilena.

                                                                      1. re: fresnohotspot

                                                                        I lived in Los Banos for 14 years. We used to go to a one of many restaurants on a tiny lake south of LB for sinigang ng kanduli, to Batangas for bulalo, and had different types of pancit after late beer nights. Had sinarapan and Bicol express in Bicol. But the best was tuna cheeks from the market in General Santos, broiled at our research station near Koronodal (although we used the filipino names for these two places) and served with hot rice. After it was out for San Miguels, balut, and addidas (chicken feet)!

                                                                        Better yet, my SO in LB (and her mother) prepared the best dinugu-an, fresh lumpia, kare kare, embutido, and so much more. I got to cook a lot of fresh and cheap ocean fish from the LB market. Plus I could get all kinds of fruit and vegetables like ampalaya and okra and Asian cabbages and kales!

                                                                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                          I am amazed, you got out there. General Santos was like the far end of the world for me. My grandparents had a farm in Mindanao and our family still has land in Koronadal. I spent a couple of summers down there and recall many beach barbecues of fresh caught fish and crab. My mother had 11 siblings and they all claimed their recipes for dinuguan, kare kare, and leche flan were the best. I just enjoyed the comparisons.

                                                                          1. re: fresnohotspot

                                                                            For the research we conducted in the Philippines (rather than in the rest of SE Asia, south Asia, and east Africa), we worked in the area around Koronodal, in Claveria in northern Mindanao, and in the "rice bowl" areas of northern/central Luzon.

                                                                            Piro, alam mo na taga Fresno ako, di ba?

                                                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                                              Siyempre, I love your posts reminiscing about the old days (and the old eating places) in Fresno. Kung kailan ka makabalik, there are some chowhounds who would love to share a meal.

                                                                  2. So here's Bourdain getting in on the act (beating up Waters) during an interview with DCist:

                                                                    "Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We're all in the middle of a recession, like we're all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic.”

                                                                    He says he has to sit with her in a panel soon - that ought to be interesting. Here's his blog about it:

                                                                    http://anthony-bourdain-blog.travelch...

                                                                    Waters' original letter (now presumably moot, but republished by Gourmet anyway):

                                                                    http://www.gourmet.com/foodpolitics/2...

                                                                    4 Replies
                                                                    1. re: applehome

                                                                      I agree with him that Alice Waters is unrealistic and a bit dictatorial.

                                                                      However, I don't agree that good quality produce is necessarily more expensive than "conventional" produce. When I go to the supermarket and walk through the produce section (where I rarely buy anything) I don't find the prices to be signicantly cheaper than the prices at my local farmers market and organic grocery. What's really expensive is imported, out-of-season produce -- those stone fruits from Chile in January, etc. -- which are things you wouldn't be buying if you were eating locally and seasonally.

                                                                      And I'm a little sick of *everyone* acting as if the recession is hurting them. Unemployment is high, and I feel deeply for everyone who has lost their job (I've been there, I have friends who are there and I'm helping them out as best I can). But most of us who haven't lost our jobs (and yes, most of us: 10 percent unemployment means 90 percent employment), are better off than we were a year ago when it comes to our monthly expenses. Gas prices are half what they were six months ago. Other energy prices are also down, and inflation is nil. Interest rates are down, which means I'm paying $150 a month less on my line of credit. Yeah, my retirement accounts took a scary-huge hit, but I'm not going to be dipping into those anytime soon, and they have time to recover. So if you have a job, for dog's sake, spend the extra few cents a pound (if any) and support your local farmers! Eat out and support you local restaurants!

                                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                        Your local farmer's market is not an opportunity for everybody.

                                                                        1. re: Icantread

                                                                          you're right, icantread. My local farmer's market has great produce at a cost roughly twice grocery store prices for conventional produce or "plain old" meat (actually meat is more than 2X-- I just bought whole chicken for over $4 a pound; last time I looked it was less than $1 a pound for Tysons or whatever)-- And organic at the grocery store is typically 50% more than conventional at the grocery store.

                                                                          1. re: Icantread

                                                                            No, of course not. But every time I say that, people jump on me!

                                                                      2. On a related, but I hope not off-topic, note, if you saw the post-Inaugural luncheon, you probably noted the menu:
                                                                        http://inaugural.senate.gov/luncheon/ (includes recipes

                                                                        )

                                                                        And a few menus from the last couple decades of luncheons.
                                                                        http://inaugural.senate.gov/luncheon/...

                                                                        I'm not sure who is responsible for preparing these meals.

                                                                        4 Replies
                                                                        1. re: taos

                                                                          The luncheon was prepared and served by an outside caterer.
                                                                          I believe it was Design Cuisine, an excellent local firm.
                                                                          It was served in Statuary Hall which is far from the House or Senate Dining Rooms. There were several hundred people invited to the lunch so they needed someone who was able to do "off-site" catering for that kind of menu for that many people..

                                                                          1. re: MakingSense

                                                                            Interesting to see news footage of the event from earlier years and the meal was served buffet style. I'm not sure when it was switched to waiters. Do you know? You seem to know a lot.

                                                                            1. re: taos

                                                                              I don't know the answer to that, but it sure makes sense to me that when you're serving a large number of people on a fixed schedule, you don't want them milling around buffet tables, especially since you wouldn't be able to have speeches until everyone had gone through the buffet and taken their seats. I think I heard that the event used to be smaller -- maybe they went to waiters when the size got too unwieldy for the buffet.

                                                                              1. re: taos

                                                                                It could have been. Both Houses of Congress had their own food service in-house until the Democrats took over the Majority in 2007. They switched to an outside contractor so they may have decided that it was better to go with a professional caterer for a big deal like this.
                                                                                As I said above, Statuary Hall is a long way from the kitchens in the Capitol so the old in-house operations might have done it buffet-style because of logistics.
                                                                                Frankly, Ruth is right. The time constraints make it tough to serve that many people buffet-style and get them all seated in time for a bunch of speechifying.
                                                                                They may have also added more people than usual.
                                                                                I've worked a lot of Inaugurations but have never been assigned inside the Capitol. Always freezing somewhere outside.

                                                                          2. Looks like the Obama's brought their own chef in as well, the guy who was their personal chef in Chicago. Apparently he's working with the existing WH chef .

                                                                            http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/20...

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: taos

                                                                              Sam Kass should be a great addition if he takes the day-to-day burden of preparing family meals off the WH exec chef and staff leaving them to do the official entertaining for dignitaries.

                                                                              For locals in Washington who skipped the link, there's a nice mention of Frank Ruta of our own excellent Palena in Cleveland Park:
                                                                              "Other administrations have found ways to have their favorite foods in the White House. Nancy Reagan preferred the cooking of one of the White House chefs, Frank Ruta, and plucked him from the kitchen to cook in the family quarters. Mr. Ruta now owns Palena in Washington."

                                                                              So this appears to be a fairly common arrangement.

                                                                            2. Here's a nice long clip of Michelle Obama leading a tour of the White House kitchen for some local culinary students and talking with the executive chef and pasty chef: http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/dail...

                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                Thanks! I had meant to watch this and then had forgotten, so thanks for posting. It's really wonderful. They're so thoughtful and encouraging to the students. Loved the line "my best recipe is one I share with other chefs" (or something like that). And all the talk about using local food is nice and sensible, if that makes sense.

                                                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                                  I like the sound of the spinach soup at the end that is very light and creamy. Does anyone have any ideas on how to replicate something like that as described in the video?

                                                                                2. And here's a blog post with a discussion on this issue with comments from the previous White House chef: http://obamafoodorama.blogspot.com/20...