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Chefs dish on first families’ likes, dislikes

A cake in the shape of a large globe conveyed the theme of this event at the White House.
A cake in the shape of a large globe conveyed the theme of this event at the White House.

WASHINGTON – As cities go, the nation’s capital is as food newsworthy as any in this land. What with all those embassies keeping a spotlight on international cuisine, ever-present buzz about first family dining forays or official state dinners, the food policy role of the government, and a diverse restaurant scene, a food lover has no excuse to be bored.

So it was for members of the Association of Food Journalists gathered here early this month for their annual conference.

Regardless of party affiliation, election year or not, everybody wants to know what and how (and where) the first family eats. A panel of current and former White House chefs shed some delicious light on that subject.

Little-known fact: The president’s family pays for its own food. Groceries purchased for regular family meals are kept separate from those acquired for state dinners and other official functions, according to Cristeta Comerford, White House executive chef since August 2005.

So yes, like most families, the Obamas do eat leftovers.

And White House chefs have emphasized healthy cooking even before Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and her efforts, such as the White House vegetable garden (more on that in a few weeks), to encourage Americans to eat better, Comerford said.

For this elite group of chefs, cooking for a first family – any first family – requires a special mind-set.

“The White House is a house,” said pastry chef Bill Yosses. “That was the biggest adjustment for me.”

“It’s not about us as chefs,” emphasized Comerford. “At the end of the day, you have to please the people you’re cooking for.”

To that end, the chefs on the panel all could remember dishes that a president asked them to never make again.

For George H.W. Bush, it was a broccoli dish that Barbara insisted he would love, said Frank Ruta. (“Maybe she was setting me up, I don’t know,” he mused, referencing the president’s well-known distaste for broccoli.)

For Bill Clinton, it was pecan pie, recalled Roland Mesnier, White House pastry chef for 26 years starting in 1979.

Feeling creative, Yosses once made a chocolate pecan pie for the Obamas. Not a hit. The first family also doesn’t care for beets, Comerford learned after serving a dish of them once.

Talk of state dinners revealed that White House customs can and do change. A typical state dinner today consists of five courses served to 136 people, Comerford said. And they last exactly 55 minutes.

Plating of dinners is done in the old family dining room because the kitchen is too small, she said. Although this is “the hardest part of the meal,” she said, in full swing “we can crank out 50 plates in seven minutes.”

When Ruta and Mesnier were in the White House, state dinners were not individually plated. They were served family style on large platters. Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered the change.

“I think platter service is much nicer,” said the outspoken Mesnier, “because you can choose what you want. And the platters were always beautiful and festive.

“I hate plate service. When that came to the White House, I really resented it. Most of my desserts were plattered to the very end.”

Asked if there were seconds at state dinners, Mesnier was equally decisive. “No, there are no seconds and no doggy bags.”

But Comerford contradicted him with a smile: “We have never denied a guest.”

“That’s new,” Mesnier said.

One thing the chefs agreed on: For state dinners, there is no room for error. You have to get it right, every time, on time.

“This is not the time to cry or call 911 or call your mother,” Mesnier said. “You don’t get a second chance.”

Usually, making and timing all of the dishes in advance – a routine practice taken so the first lady and staff can sample them and make final choices – eliminates any chance for error.

Still, Mesnier came close to disaster once, he said. He was making hot raspberry soufflés for a large state dinner serving 250. The egg whites wouldn’t whip. He started over twice, dumping out both batches. And then he overheard the chef and sous chef talking about mayonnaise they had made that morning …

It takes only three drops of residual oil to sabotage egg whites, the chef explained.

Turning to a clean bowl, he started again, this time to success. To speed up the cooking process, the soufflés were started on top of the stove and then put in the oven at the highest heat possible, he said.

“We were ready just in time, down to the second,” Mesnier recalled. “I still have nightmares about it.”

Questions about “first children” brought smiles and more stories.

Amy Carter would make cookies, Ruta said.

“She’d make a mess,” Mesnier chimed in. “She’d put them in the oven and then go off and roller skate.”

Chelsea Clinton did indeed come down to the White House kitchen for cooking lessons before she left for college.

But when it came to the Obama girls, Yosses and Comerford were resolutely closemouthed, following the family’s wishes. Yosses would say only that “the girls come down once in a while.”

Mesnier recalled that once he was called at home at midnight to return to the White House to bake and decorate a birthday cake for Chelsea, by then a college student at Stanford, and box it up special for her parents’ early-morning flight. He did it without complaint.

Said Mesnier: “You have to be fully dedicated if you work for the White House.”


(Nancy J. Stohs is food editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at Twitter:@NancyJStohs.)


©2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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