The Delicious History of the White House Executive Chef
By Nolan Moore
Virginia Woolf once wrote, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." That’s especially true for the president of the United States. If you’re going to run a country without losing your mind, then you’re going to need some really good food to get you through the day. Of course, that begs a simple yet significant question. Who’s in charge of putting dinner on the White House table?
Well, that task belongs to the White House executive chef. Since 1961, only seven people have held this prestigious position. Working with a surprisingly small staff, the executive chef is the one who keeps the first family healthy and happy. Plus, when an emperor or prime minister shows up for a swanky White House party, the chef has to make sure all those powerful palates are sufficiently sated.
Sure, it’s incredibly stressful, but when it comes to culinary accomplishments, there’s no job more important than cooking for the president of the United States.
LANDING THE JOB
Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and staff, 2005. By The White House (Shealah Craighead) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As you might imagine, applying for the position of head White House chef is a pretty competitive endeavor. Cooks from the nation’s best restaurants and hotels send in their resumes, and if you’re singled out from the pack, it’s time to impress the first lady.
Chef Henry Haller got the gig one day after interviewing with Lady Bird Johnson, and Walter Scheib won the position by preparing a meal for Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Cristeta Comerford had to come up with a menu to impress Mr. and Mrs. Bush. (Past that, the White House is kind of secretive about the selection process, so we’re all a bit in the dark when it comes to impressing the first family.)
If you’re lucky enough to land the gig, the job starts at 6 a.m. each day, ends well after midnight, and there’s no pay for overtime. The chef takes home somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, and they earn every single penny. In addition to feeding the first family, the executive chef is also in charge of preparing meals for White House parties and important banquets. Depending on the evening, the chef might be cooking for A-list celebrities, national heroes, foreign dignitaries, or even royalty.
As part of the job, the executive chef oversees three separate White House kitchens. The one located on the second floor is for the president and his family. (The food here is all paid for by the president, and that goes for the meals served at private parties, as well.) Head down to the ground floor, and you’ll find Kitchen #2, which is dedicated to big banquets. And underneath the main level, there’s Kitchen #3 [PDF], which is where all the pastries are made. While the executive chef isn’t in charge of the desserts, she does coordinate menus with the executive pastry chef. A sous chef takes care of the Mess Kitchen for staff in residence.
While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, the present-day executive chef only has a staff of about five people. Naturally, during large events, extra chefs are shuttled in to help feed all the guests. But the State Department also lends a helping hand by sending memos to the executive chef, detailing what food items foreign dignitaries will and won’t eat. The chef also gets inside information because she's a member of Le Club des Chefs de Chefs, a group of 23 men and women who earn their membership by serving as the personal chefs to heads of state. In addition to keeping world leaders healthy and happy, these cooks meet every year to swap tips and recipes.
But even before Jackie Kennedy created the position of executive chef in 1961, presidents had to eat. So who did the cooking?
PRESIDENTIAL COOKS B.E.C. (BEFORE THE EXECUTIVE CHEF)
A long line of people operated the commander-in-chief's stoves and ovens before 1961, including slaves, servants, and sailors. America’s first presidential cook was a slave named Hercules. Some think he might have been trained by Martha Washington, and he spent his days cooking at George’s home in Philadelphia, where the capital was then located. (Hercules escaped to freedom when Washington was preparing to retire.)
Several other Founding Fathers—including Thomas Jefferson—relied on slaves to keep their kitchens going. (John Adams, on the other hand, hired a white couple by the name of Briesler to make his stews and puddings.) Even after slavery came to an end, African-Americans played an important part in keeping the president full. For example, Benjamin Harrison made headlines when he fired his French chef and employed a Black chef named Dolly Johnson, and women such as Ida Allen, Mary Campbell, and Lizzie McDuffie all cooked for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Some cooks served under multiple administrations, such as Alice Howard, a woman who prepared meals for Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. And finally, one of the last White House cooks before 1961 was Pedro Udo, a Navy man who served under Dwight D. Eisenhower and impressed the first lady with his ability to decorate cakes.
But that all changed when the Kennedys moved into the White House and created the position of Executive Chef. For the first time in American history, a professionally trained chef had an official government position, cooking meals for the first family and preparing elaborate banquets for parties, state dinners, and events like the Easter Egg Roll. The First Lady chose French-born René Verdon to fill the post.
THE FIRST EXECUTIVE CHEF: RENÉ VERDON
Verdon was tapped for the job while working as an assistant chef at New York’s Carlyle Hotel; Jackie Kennedy learned about him from the chef of one of her favorite restaurants, La Caravelle, and it seems the man was a perfect fit for the Kennedy White House. He often chatted with the first lady in French, kept the president supplied with his favorite soup (New England clam chowder), and baked cookies for their 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. He used his homegrown herbs and mastery of French cuisine to dazzle various heads of state, such as Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister.
However, much like a stereotypical French chef, Verdon could be difficult to work with. For example, while preparing to serve 132 guests at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, he threatened to quit when he spotted workers pumping the air full of mosquito spray. But after Secret Service agents offered to taste all the food to ensure no one would die of DDT poisoning, Verdon whipped up a meal of avocado and crabmeat salads, among other dishes. The evening turned out to be Verdon’s favorite state dinner.
After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, things changed pretty dramatically around the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t a fan of French food; he preferred hamburgers and chili. Verdon was understandably upset and once famously declared, "You can eat at home what you want, but you do not serve barbecued spareribs at a banquet with the ladies in white gloves." The relationship between Verdon and the Johnsons worsened even further when a food coordinator was hired to cut prices by stocking the kitchen with frozen and canned vegetables.
One of the final blows came in 1965, when Verdon was asked to serve a cold puree of garbanzo beans. The chef responded that that particular dish was "already bad hot." At around the same time, the food coordinator was steering Verdon to recipes found in a series of cookbooks. Insulted, Verdon turned in his resignation. The chef fled to San Francisco, where he opened a renowned restaurant called Le Trianon.
Henry Haller with Betty Ford, 1974. By The White House [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
After Verdon left the Johnsons in limbo, the White House turned to Henry Haller. Born in Switzerland, Haller had previously worked at Manhattan’s Hampshire House and made a name for himself in the New York food scene. When offered the chance to cook for the commander-in-chief, Haller seized the moment.
The chef quickly discovered that the president was not especially conscientious: He often told Haller that a dozen guests were coming to dinner that night with just a few hours to prepare. But Haller stayed on and was executive chef for 21 years, feeding five presidents (including Nixon, who, on his last day in the White House, told Haller, "Chef, I have eaten all over the world, but your food is the best," before ordering corned-beef hash with a poached egg for breakfast) and providing meals for over 250 state dinners. He served some of the most powerful people in the world, arranging meals for the chancellor of Germany and the prime minister of New Zealand, and, for the U.S. Bicentennial, serving cold lobster to Queen Elizabeth. But he also served steaks to 1300 guests at a banquet honoring POWs and took charge of more intimate events, from baking cookies for Amy Carter’s Girl Scout troop and cooking for Luci Johnson’s wedding to arranging the menu when the White House hosted Susan Ford’s senior prom. No matter the size of the event, Haller was a man who always got the job done.
Of course, he wasn’t completely in control of his own kitchen. The executive chef works in tandem with the first lady, and some are more laissez faire than others. Nancy Reagan was very involved in the culinary process. Before state dinners, the first lady insisted the kitchen staff perform multiple trial runs, plating and arranging the food until it looked perfect. She would then have someone photograph the dishes so Haller could duplicate her vision down to the last detail.
Haller left the White House in 1987 on amicable terms. As he explained to The New York Times, "I will be 65 … I want to ski. I want to have more time for my family. And it’s time to make more money." After retiring from the office of executive chef, Haller went on to write The White House Family Cookbook, a collection of recipes and memories from his time serving in the executive mansion.
Jon Hill set two records during his time as White House executive chef: He was the first cook born in America to win the position—and he held the job for the shortest time of any chef in White House history. It’s a strange record to set, especially since Hill seemed more than qualified for the part. As the head chef at Fort Lauderdale’s Westin Cypress Creek Hotel, the man was in charge of 100 employees and two entire restaurants. When White House officials went down a list of 30 candidates, Hill was the first pick.
But right from the get-go, things seemed a bit weird. After he was approved by Nancy Reagan, Hill absolutely refused to speak to the press. He even declined to confirm his age (he was 33). Perhaps Hill had decided to let his food speak for him. During his short stint, the man cooked for leaders from countries like Sweden, Spain, and Israel. But while he began working at the White House in the autumn of 1987, he was already on his way out in January 1988.
Nancy Reagan’s press secretary said Hill’s departure was his own "personal decision." But plenty of people believed the Reagans just weren’t impressed with the quality of Hill’s cooking. After a few months, Hill returned to the private sector, where he found success as the executive chef of the Wigwam Resort and later working at Estrella Mountain Community College.
Hans Raffert with Nancy Reagan, 1985. By The White House. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas is a pretty special time around the White House. The place is done up in beautiful decorations, and every December, a specially made, edible house goes on display in the State Dining Room. In recent years, chefs have created some truly impressive White House replicas out of chocolate. But for decades, these home-baked homes were lovingly sculpted out of gingerbread, a tradition that started with Hans Raffert.
Born in Germany, Raffert joined the White House staff in 1969, working as Haller’s assistant chef. That same year, First Lady Pat Nixon tasked Raffert with building a gingerbread house to liven up the holidays. While there had been other gingerbread houses before, the first "official" White House gingerbread building was a pretty simple affair, just an A-frame coated in icing and a few decorations. But over the years, the houses grew bigger, the candy decorations grew more elaborate, and soon the sculptures were surrounded by frosted trees and little gingerbread people.
Raffert remained an assistant chef until Jon Hill resigned in 1988. Naturally, the 60-year-old Raffert knew he was accepting a monumental task, and in interviews, he implied he was probably too old for such a "strenuous job." But as he explained, he was "honored and proud" to serve the Reagans. And while he prepared state dinners and elaborate meals, he always looked forward to December when he could charm the first family with his gingerbread creations.
Raffert built his very last gingerbread house in 1991 for George and Barbara Bush, complete with icing, candy canes, and a tiny Millie (the president’s dog) in the front yard.
Pierre Chambrin, a classically trained French chef, was a man set in his ways. He started his government career as a sous chef for George H.W. Bush, and after Raffert called it quits, the Frenchman was promoted.
Chambrin got along just fine with the Bushes, who greatly enjoyed his buttery entrees, but that all changed when the Clintons showed up. As first lady, Hillary Clinton had some very definite ideas about what should happen in the White House kitchen. Looking to keep her husband trim, Hillary wanted Chambrin to create dishes that were lighter, fresher, and more American. Hoping to get the message across, she sent Chambrin a stack of cookbooks featuring low-fat American recipes. She also brought along several American chefs who consulted with Chambrin, and she even invited a physician to give the White House staff a few tips.
This didn’t exactly mesh with Chambrin’s modus operandi. Chambrin, according to The New York Times, was the kind of guy who didn’t "take orders." One White House employee told the Times that the chef was "incapable of doing low fat. He truly doesn’t understand and isn’t willing to be taught." Thanks to their differences in taste, the Clintons asked the 46-year-old chef to resign in 1994.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and working at a series of high-profile hotels, Walter Scheib wasn’t looking to feed the leader of the free world. But unbeknownst to Scheib, his wife had secretly submitted his resume to the White House. After looking over his application, Mrs. Clinton was so impressed that she personally offered him a job.
When Scheib and Clinton met in April 1994, it was like a match made in culinary heaven. Both were big fans of American cuisine, and they believed the White House kitchen had a responsibility to serve the best foods from each state. In fact, Scheib was such a U.S.-centric chef that he convinced Hillary to serve bison meat at the 50th anniversary of NATO.
When he wasn’t cooking for the emperor and empress of Japan, Scheib was teaching Chelsea Clinton how to maneuver around a kitchen. Unfortunately, his relationship wasn’t quite as warm with George W. and Laura Bush. The new president preferred simpler foods, and according to Scheib, "If it wasn’t baked or fried, [Bush] wasn’t interested." While Laura did appreciate Scheib’s penchant for using organic food, she eventually decided it was time to part ways, and the chef was fired in 2005.
However, during his time at the White House, Scheib worked wonders for a long list of world leaders, from Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana to Boris Yeltsin and Vicente Fox. And he learned a lot about America’s first families during his tenure. In one interview, Scheib noted that "Mrs. Clinton had about 50 or 60 different hot sauces that she liked to use, and Mrs. Bush just had one that she liked, but she would use it on just about everything." He also admitted that while the wives were pretty adventurous when it came to food, both Bill and George "would have been just as happy if we had opened a barbecue pit or a burger joint in the basement." After leaving the White House, Scheib started his own culinary business and even appeared on Iron Chef America.
By now, you’ve probably noticed a trend among White House executive chefs: They've all been white men. That finally changed in 2005, when Laura Bush gave Cristeta Comerford the keys to the kitchen.
Born in the Philippines, Comerford is the second youngest of 11 children. After moving to the U.S. when she was 23, she got a gig working as a "salad girl" at Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel. Every day, her brother dropped her off at work so she could prepare Caesar and Cobb salads. Eventually, she wound up in Washington, D.C., where she worked as the head chef of several hotels before spending some time in Vienna, picking up a few pointers on the art of French cooking.
When Comerford learned that Scheib was looking for an assistant chef, she submitted her resume and beat out 449 other applicants. Her first day of White House work was in 1995, and in 2005, the apprentice replaced the master, becoming the first woman and the first minority to ever earn the title of White House executive chef.
After winning the election in 2008, the Obamas kept Comerford on staff, and when Michelle Obama turned 1100 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. During her stint so far, the chef has prepared meals for the likes of Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese president Hu Jintao, and over 400 guests at the African Leaders Summit.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a typical Cristeta Comerford meal is "known for its Asian spice, colors, and 'extra garlic.'" Similar to her mentor Scheib, Comerford is taking White House cuisine in new directions, and hopefully she’ll continue serving new presidents for years to come.
Personal chef Sam Kass helps Michelle Obama and participating schoolchildren plant vegetables in the White House garden, 2009. Getty
It takes more than one person to keep the president fit and fed. You’ve got assistant chefs and pastry chefs, and every so often, the commander-in-chief brings along his own personal cook. In these strange scenarios, the executive chef takes care of state dinners, while the personal cook is the person in charge of the first family.
For example, when Barack Obama took office, he hired his close friend, Sam Kass, to take care of all the family meals. The Obamas first hired Kass in 2005, back when Barack was starting his Senate career, and Kass helped the family get their lives together, dietarily speaking.
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.
Kass isn’t the only modern-day personal chef, however. Zephyr Wright was Lyndon B. Johnson’s longtime cook, and she specialized in Southern foods like spoonbread, grits, and peach preserves. She was also well-known for her amazing chili recipe. So when the Johnsons moved to D.C., they invited Wright to come along.
While Wright knew how to keep the first family happy, she certainly faced her fair share of challenges. In addition to putting up with Johnson’s late-night habits and surprise guests, she often came into conflict with Executive Chef René Verdon. The Frenchman seemed jealous of Wright’s White House position, especially when Johnson dissed Verdon’s tapioca pudding by asking Wright to make her superior version. René often disrespected Zephyr’s cooking, referring to her chili con queso as "chili con-crete," but the animosity went both ways. Wright wanted a salary equal to her cooking counterpart, but while her paycheck never matched Verdon's, she did convince Johnson to give her a $250 per month raise.
In addition to her cooking skills, Wright’s friendship with LBJ encouraged the president to champion civil rights. Johnson was especially inspired to take a stand when he learned that, during a road trip, his African-American cook had to stop on the side of the road to urinate because she wasn’t allowed to use any gas station restrooms. When the president finally signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he gave Wright the pen he used to sign the bill, saying, "You deserve this more than anybody else."