Way to White House Is Through Its Taste Buds

Times Staff Writer

Wanted: A master chef flexible enough to create a four-course banquet for 100 one night and whip up a mean pot of chili for two the next.

Anyone who can stand that kind of heat might just get the top job in the White House kitchen.

Laura Bush plans to entertain more during her husband’s second term, and White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib resigned this month. So the search is on for a cooking pro who can prepare dazzling fare for hundreds and simple snacks for the four members of the first family -- not to mention a lot of Tex-Mex.

“They like spicy food,” said Gordon Johndroe, the first lady’s press secretary. “I think it’s hard to find a Texan whose favorite foods are not Mexican food and barbecue.”


Whoever is chosen must be ready to plan and prepare buffets for large receptions, picnics on the South Lawn and the daily meals for the president and his wife, their two daughters and their guests -- including events as intimate as a gathering of old Texas pals and as imposing as glittering state dinners.

And he or she (though no woman has held the post) should be available round-the-clock.

Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan, said, “The chef is central to the whole experience” of a White House guest’s visit.

Reagan had one guiding principle for entertaining her guests: “Many people will come to the White House one time in their lives,” Tate said. “She wanted to make sure that when they walked out that door, it was the experience of a lifetime.”

The first lady usually met with success, by Tate’s account. “I never saw a misstep,” Tate said. “Never.”

Johndroe said the search, under the direction of White House chief usher Gary J. Walters and social secretary Lea Berman, is moving along. If tradition is any guide, Laura Bush will have the final say.

Since the disclosure that Scheib had resigned to “pursue other opportunities,” the White House had received about 100 resumes and was soliciting additional candidates.

Finalists will be asked to showcase their best dishes at a small tasting dinner at the White House, Johndroe said.

Last year’s search for a new executive pastry chef took about two months, he added, declining to predict how long this one would take.

The search has already led to Patrick O’Connell, co-owner and head chef of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. -- a restaurant the International Herald Tribune has called one of the 10 best in the world.

Berman contacted O’Connell to gauge his interest in replacing Scheib, he said last week. But O’Connell doesn’t relish the idea of cooking full time for the first family.

“I own and run a restaurant, which is my baby and my family,” he said.

O’Connell acknowledged, though, that he was “immensely flattered” to receive a call from the White House.

O’Connell described his dishes as taking traditional American essences to elegant new levels. “I call it American food reincarnated,” he said.

A celebration of American food is what Hillary Rodham Clinton had in mind 11 years ago when she hired Scheib, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, from the Greenbrier, a resort in West Virginia. Clinton wanted to serve presidential fare inspired by the best of regional American cooking, a nod to the rise of American food as haute cuisine.

Until then, White House executive chefs were primarily European-trained. The first full-time chef was a Frenchman -- Rene Verdon, hired in 1961 by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Scheib replaced Pierre Chambrin, a classically trained French chef who was brought in by Barbara Bush and left the White House amid rumors that he was reluctant to adapt his traditional French cooking to include lighter fare. Chambrin told a trade publication, Nation’s Restaurant News, in 1994 that he “had a different concept about the food” than the Clintons.

Rumors have flown around Scheib’s departure as well, particularly when he told the New York Times, after his departure was announced, that “we have been trying to find a way to satisfy the first lady’s stylistic requirements, and it has been difficult. Basically, I was not successful in my attempt.”

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Laura Bush described her ideal candidate as “somebody who can really showcase American foods” but noted that she didn’t expect any celebrity chefs -- those with a series of cookbooks or a TV show, for instance -- to be interested in the job.

Yet it is just such chefs, such as Hollywood’s Lulu Powers whose show, “Lulu’s House,” is premiering March 6 on the Fine Living cable network -- who may best understand the demands of high-powered clientele.

“It takes a good disposition,” said Powers, who catered events in Los Angeles for the White House during the Clinton administration. “You have to go with the flow. You have to make things that taste good, and they don’t have to be fancy.”

Powers, whose clients have included Madonna, Sigourney Weaver, and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, said she had no interest in the opening. But if she wanted to apply for the post, she added, she was confident she could handle the weight of the presidential toque -- both in catering to the tastes of world leaders at state dinners and in working to accommodate the wishes of the first family.

And she thinks she’d be able to get along well with Laura Bush, too. “She’s a good old Southern gal,” Powers said.



Purveyors of presidential cuisine

Until the Kennedy administration, most first families preferred to have a family cook prepare their everyday meals, while receptions and state dinners were catered, according to the White House Historical Assn. There have been six executive chefs:

Rene Verdon. He was hired as the first full-time executive chef in 1961 by Jacqueline Kennedy, who admired French culture and wanted to entertain on a grand scale. Verdon’s Gallic background complemented the first lady’s continental sensibilities.

Henry Haller. Swiss-trained, Haller was hired in 1966 by Lady Bird Johnson. He served five presidents -- Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan -- before retiring in 1987 and writing “The White House Family Cookbook.”

Jon Hill. Nancy Reagan brought him to Washington from the Westin Cypress Creek Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1987. Hill returned to the hotel business after four months at the White House.

Hans Raffert. The first White House assistant chef named to the top job -- he began cooking for presidents in 1969 -- Raffert succeeded Hill in early 1988.

Pierre Chambrin. Formerly the chef at Maison Blanche, a French restaurant near the White House, Chambrin was an assistant chef at the White House when Barbara Bush promoted him upon Raffert’s retirement in 1992.

Walter Scheib. Hillary Rodham Clinton asked Oakland native Scheib, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, to emphasize American cuisine when he was hired in 1994. He had been executive chef at the Greenbrier resort and spa, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Source: Times staff and Associated Press reports