BURBANK : Anecdotes Spice Up Meal With Presidents' Chef

Well known for her fussiness over expensive china, secretaries of state and her husband's horoscope, Nancy Reagan, not surprisingly, was rather particular about her dinner as well.

"Of all the First Ladies," White House chef to five Presidents Henry Haller began, "how shall I say . . . she worked very closely with the chef."

There were the menus, sent for approval a week in advance. Then the "test meal" a few days before the event. And following that, the First Lady often visited the second-floor kitchen--with suggestions.

"To cook for Mrs. Reagan was a real challenge," Haller summed up with a tone of diplomacy acquired from hundreds of state dinners.

Haller, 71, the head White House chef for 22 years, was in town for a benefit dinner Sunday night at the Los Angeles Culinary Institute, with proceeds going to the cooking school's scholarship program and a group of young chefs from around the state known as Team California.

After more than two decades in the presidential kitchen, the white-haired Haller has some rich gastronomic tales to tell--table talk that lends quirky insight into the minds and stomachs of some of the most powerful people of the 20th Century.

The Reagans were the fifth and choosiest of the First Families Haller served, he said. But they were by no means alone in their culinary pickiness.

Absent from the dinner Sunday was not only broccoli, but string beans.

It was Lyndon Johnson who had a problem with that vegetable, and he called Haller to the table one night.

"Chef," he said, "if you can't get the strings off the beans, don't serve them to me. Because that's not my job."

At the Sunday night banquet, Haller presided over the preparation of only the favorite dishes of former White House residents. And 80 diners paid $75 a plate to taste the foods of power.

The first course on the menu was Ronald Reagan's savarin of lobster mousse with watercress coulis. To cleanse the palate, a pink grapefruit sorbet followed. The entree was Nixon's delight, a stuffed roast loin of veal, and following that the black-tied waiters served up Lady Bird Johnson's sprouted garden greens with rose petals and red wine vinaigrette.

To top it off, a dessert that tickled Nancy Reagan's delicate palate, orange blossom mousse.

Though Haller insisted he wouldn't "tell the best stories. . . . I want to keep it clean," he spilled plenty of political beans, illuminating the appetites of power and the importance of kitchen flexibility.

When the president of France visited the Statue of Liberty during a bicentennial celebration, Haller sent chilled lobster to him by helicopter. He whipped up 1,300 seafood dishes when the captured American fliers were released by North Vietnam in 1974. And he served Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin their first meal, salmon mousse, after the signing of the historic peace pact between Egypt and Israel.

While being kept in the kitchen as five different Presidents moved in and out of the White House was probably the highest compliment Haller could be paid, one of the most poignant came the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon's last day in office.

"I served him his last breakfast," Haller recalled, of orange juice, toast and coffee. "He was in his pajamas and bare feet. He came over and said, 'Chef, I've been eating all over the world, and your food is the best.' "

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