Recipe for Success: Cooking for the President

Chefs sound off on the secret ingredients to White House cooking.

December 2, 2008, 3:02 PM

Dec. 3, 2008— -- It's not a cabinet position. It doesn't require Senate confirmation. But much like President-elect Obama's inner circle, the person selected as the next White House chef will face a daunting task: Ensuring the security and well-being of the commander in chief's stomach.

In an age of celebrity chefs, the president-elect's pick for White House chef -- not yet announced -- is now more closely watched than ever before. Obama can opt to stick with White House chef Cristeta Comerford, the first woman to hold the position, or he can opt to replace her.

"I don't see any reason why the Obamas would not like her," Roland Mesnier, White House pastry chef from 1979 to 2004, told Tuesday. "Most of the time, if the chef is able to please, he will stay on -- I'm the living proof of it."

Others have speculated that Obama will bring on a fellow Chicagoan, as he has done with picks like chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and White House senior adviser David Axelrod. High-profile chefs in the city include Rick Bayless of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, Oprah Winfrey's personal chef Art Smith of Table 52, and Charlie Trotter at his namesake restaurant.

That is, if those in his hometown will even allow it.

"I won't let him take my chef," Ken Raskin, owner of Manny's Deli, joked Tuesday to "Can't have him, but I'll be happy to deliver food whenever he wants it."

Others said the position of White House chef presents tremendous opportunity, perhaps even in promoting local ingredients, the sustainable food movement and healthy cooking.

"They could have a great herb garden around the White House, or they could have their own chickens or their own eggs," said Daniel Humm, executive chef at New York's Eleven Madison Park. "That would be really cool to see. It also would be a great thing to see for the kids, as well."

Whoever Obama selects for the job, chefs and Chicago restaurant owners alike have some tips for feeding the first family:

First and foremost, it's not about you, former White House chefs advise. In Mesnier's opinion, the job is for "somebody who loves to cook, not somebody who loves to clown."

"The celebrity at the White House is not the cook, it's the president and the first lady and the first family," said Walter Scheib, who served as executive chef for 11 years, for both the Clintons and the Bushes.

Mesnier said, "Don't try to be seen. If they want to see you, they know where to find you."

For that reason, both Mesnier and Scheib think a celebrity chef or reality show winner would be the wrong pick for the job.

Rule No. 2: Get in good with Michelle Obama.

During his job interview with Rosalynn Carter in 1979, Mesnier recalled the first lady's last question to the nervous job applicant: What will you do for us?

"Oh, madam, I will do a lot of low calories and a lot of fresh fruit with dessert," Mesnier recalled answering. Today, he's convinced his final answer is what landed him the job.

"First and foremost, that person should get to know Mrs. Obama inside and out and should have her complete faith and backing," Scheib said.

Indeed, Scheib, who now runs his own catering company, The American Chef, plucks that valuable piece of advice from his own childhood. "If momma's happy, then everybody's happy," he said.

Given Michelle Obama's house rules, Mesnier said he also predicts the Obamas' tendencies could resemble the Carters', where family members were instructed to go change if they showed up for dinner in flip flops and jeans or go without food if they showed up late.

"That's the way she comes across," Mesnier said of the incoming first lady.

"I'm thinking, overall, that she's going to implement good food, healthy food, for the family and she's going to be watching over the president big time."

If Obama's eating habits on the campaign trail are any indication, the next White House chef could have a calorie-conscious eater on his or her hands.

But whether Obama has a sweet tooth, like President Ronald Reagan and President Clinton, adventurous taste buds, like President Bush Sr., or a penchant for organic ingredients, like Laura Bush, Mesnier said it's the job of the chef to serve up whatever they like, however they like it.

"If the president said, 'I like my steak totally black on the outside,' then you'd better make it this way," Mesnier said. "Don't say, 'Oh, I have to teach the president how to eat.'"

First Family Eating Habits

Going with the flow also applies to any other quirky habits the first family might have at meal time.

Take President Bush: "He's the fastest eater I've ever met," Mesnier said. "I think five minutes at the table is a banquet for him."

Or President Clinton: "He's a wonderful man but he's not very disciplined when it comes to meal time," Mesnier said. "But he's the president, so it's his choice."

In other words, keep your mouth closed and your eyes open. Learn what's going on in the house and take stock of how the family approaches both food and entertaining. And take notes.

"I'm a copious note-taker and file-keeper," Scheib said.

Versatility and flexibility are also key to success. Those traits come in handy when whipping up a quick sandwich, preparing an intricate state dinner, accommodating allergies or dietary requirements, or simply anticipating what a family might need at the end of a long day.

In the Clinton family alone, the president was allergic to dairy products, chocolate and flour -- a major challenge for a pastry chef serving a man who loved dessert, Mesnier recalled.

Chelsea Clinton, too, had become a vegan by the time she departed for college, requiring Scheib to cook up a new repertoire.

Scheib added that it was also necessary to take the temperature of the White House before serving a meal, a tactic which prompted him to turn to comfort food for the Bushes immediately following the 9/11 terror attacks.

"Literally, the day after 9/11, the food changed dramatically," Scheib said.

Diversity of Choices

Encouraging a diversity of choices is also key when chefs from restaurants preparing to serve the first family call for tips. A piece of advice from Scheib: Only tell them what the first family doesn't like. If you specify what they do, the Obamas could end up eating the same old chili dish everywhere they go.

Devotion to the first family will also mean giving up family celebrations of your own.

"All my years in the White House, my wife can tell you, we didn't celebrate anything because I always had to go to work, Mesnier said.

Still, those who have come before said spending time with the first family, especially the kids, was a joy.

"The young folks always gravitated toward the kitchen just like they would in any other home," said Scheib, fondly recalling how to teach Chelsea Clinton how to cook before she headed off to college.

"Getting to know them as human beings and getting to see the personal dynamic that takes place, that's a personal honor," Scheib said.

When in doubt, take a cue from Obama's Chicago playbook. A large group of restaurant owners and chefs in Chicago already have a read on the president's taste buds and can provide some tips for the log books.

For breakfast: Valois Cafeteria manager Tom Chronopoulos told the president-elect enjoys a big breakfast of egg whites, bacon and hash browns.

And for dinner? You can't go wrong with a good old "Garbage Pizza," topped with pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, ground beef, green peppers, mushrooms and onions, according to Medici restaurant manager Mattie Pool.

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe contributed to this report.

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