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White House chef a premier culinary position

February 15, 2017 Updated: February 15, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Chefs hat isolated on white

With Presidents Day approaching, it's a good time to ponder who might be tapped to head the White House kitchen for the new administration, as well as reflect on who has been in that position in the past.

It's not uncommon for chefs to be kept on through several presidential terms. The current chef, Cristeta Comerford, a Filipino-American, started working at the White House during the Clinton years as an assistant chef. In 2005, first lady Laura Bush promoted her to executive chef, and the Obamas kept her on. She's the first female in that position and was involved in Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to get kids to eat healthier.

But it's not a given that Comerford will be kept on board. Among the rumors are that President Donald Trump will name a celebrity chef - David Burke, who helped open BLT Prime in Washington, D.C.'s new Trump International Hotel. Burke has known Trump since 1988, when he was hired to cater a party on his yacht, the Trump Princess.

There's also speculation that Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, may have a hand in how the chef-in-charge position will be filled. It's been reported that, unlike her father, she is interested in healthy eating. President Trump makes no secret of his love for McDonald's, taco bowls and KFC. I guess we'll have to keep an eye on Twitter as the drama plays out.

In the meantime, to get a feel for what it's like to be the Oval Office's executive chef, we turned to John Moeller, who previously held the position and penned "Dining at the White House - From the President's Table to Yours," published in 2013. His memoir cookbook is a treasure trove of insight about working in the White House kitchen.

Moeller grew up in Lancaster, Pa. His passion for cooking led him to pursue a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales College in Providence, R.I., where he graduated cum laude in 1981. After working in several restaurants around New England, in 1984 he took a trip to France that turned into a 2½-year journey of culture and food discovery. He worked in the top kitchens of France with well-known chefs.

In 1987, he returned to the States and settled in Washington, D.C.

"I was invited to a networking gathering of French-trained chefs working in the nation's capital," he said. "I met Pierre Chambrin of Maison Blanche (restaurant)."

That fateful meeting led to the job of a lifetime. Chambrin became the White House executive chef for the George H.W. Bush administration.

"Pierre called me to see if I'd be interested in being his sous chef," Moeller said. "I jumped at the opportunity."

He was hired in June 1992.

Moeller found the White House kitchen to be tiny but efficiently organized.

"There is only room for four or five chefs," Moeller said, "The kitchen was about 55 by 25 square feet. It was pretty dated when I arrived, but in the late '90s we were able to upgrade the equipment and this was a big improvement.."

According to Moeller, the first family pays for their own food. And the security of food coming into the kitchen is closely monitored.

"Yes, they receive a bill for what they consume personally," he said. "This would include any toiletry items, food for pets, kitty litter, beverages and of course food for the first family and their guest."

A close eye is kept on food items bought locally.

"If I went to a farmers market to buy a chicken, I would have to be very careful not to let anyone know I was buying food for the president's family," he said. "No one knows who or what we are doing."

Foods cooked at the White House vary. The Bush family loved Moeller's chicken enchiladas and chicken pot pie.

"The pot pie is Lancaster County-style," he said. "The dumpling-type dough that is cooked in the sauce."

Moeller worked as a sous chef and ultimately as White House chef until 2005 and was one of the longest tenured chefs across three administrations. He helped create and prepare meals not only for the first families but also for world leaders like Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela, famous guests like Julia Child and Sophia Loren, and for holiday parties and trips to Camp David.

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