America's chef

The new Washington home of the Obama family comes with a nice feature, a chef in the basement.

Walter Scheib was that chef from 1994 to 2005, cooking for the first families of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He orchestrated elaborate state dinners, but a central component of the job is feeding the family. Mealtime at the White House should, he said, "be an island of sanity in an abnormal world."


Scheib grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and spent a year at the University of Maryland before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. He left the White House after clashing with Laura Bush's social secretary, an issue detailed in White House Chef, which he wrote with Andrew Freidman.

Now he runs The American Chef, a Virginia-based catering company, and is a consultant to Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Pennsylvania.


Cristeta Comeford, whom he hired as an assistant chef, is the current White House executive chef.

Barack Obama told the Associated Press that his favorite food is chili. Other reported Obama family favorite foods from Chicago restaurants are barbecue chicken pizza from Pizza Capri, Caribbean food from Calypso Cafe and Mexican fare from Topolobampo. Will these dishes immediately show up on the White House menu?

My experience is that a president is not always totally candid when it comes to answering the "favorite food" question. He knows he had better be careful, because if he says his favorite food is chili, then everywhere he goes he will end up being fed chili.

When a new first family moves into the White House, how does the chef figure out what to feed them?

Inauguration Day is strange. The outgoing family leaves by 10 in the morning, and the new first family comes in at 2 in the afternoon. So you cook for two first families in one day.

At some time during the transition the White House usher sits down with the first lady or someone close to the family and finds out their personal preferences, their likes and dislikes for all kinds of everyday things. As their family cook, you start with a safe menu, and work out from there.

Then there is the low-tech approach. You look at plates as they come back into the kitchen. If you are sending out carrots and a lot of carrots are coming back, or if you are sending out a salad with frisee and it is coming back, then you take those dishes off your menu.

You draw up a week's worth of menus, and submit them for approval on Tuesday for the meals that are going to start on Sunday. It is a rough draft, listing all the items on breakfast, lunch and dinner and the nutritional readouts. You work for the first lady and I have learned that, as in most families, if Mama is happy, everybody is happy.


The Obamas have two daughters, 10 and 7. Does the menu change when the first family has young children?

Somewhat. Chelsea Clinton was 12 when her family first moved in. At that age she had a very narrow idea of what she wanted to eat. Two of her favorites then were grilled chicken breast with lemon pasta and broccoli, and macaroni and cheese. She was very clear that it had to be Kraft macaroni and cheese from a blue box. We couldn't deviate.

Later, when she got ready to go away to college at Stanford, she began eating a vegetarian diet and developed a taste for the cuisine of South Asia and India. At her mother's request I gave Chelsea some cooking lessons. Her Thai-spiced sweet potato soup with gingered bok choy is in my book.

Is there a difference between the way Democrats and Republicans dine?

There is no red state food and blue state food. But there is a difference along gender lines. Both first ladies I worked for, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, had excellent palates. Mrs. Clinton was very interested in exploring ethnic food, spices, and in nutrition. Mrs. Bush was an advocate of organic food. Both like lattes.

The two presidents I cooked for would have been happy, I think, if I put a barbecue joint in the basement. They seemed to believe that any sandwich was better with melted cheese on top it. I guess you could say they were fans of "guy food."


President Bush liked peanut butter and honey sandwiches, smooth peanut butter, on toast with the crusts cut off. He ate them for lunch after his midday run or bike ride.

President Clinton was notorious for his appetite, but that changed after he had heart surgery. I bumped into him at a function after his surgery, and he said, "I should have listen to you and Hil, and I have a scar to prove it." He is active now in a program to prevent childhood obesity.

Would you consider returning to the White House?

Well it's hard to resist a president's call. I was thrilled, as I said in my book, when Cris was selected to be my successor. She is the first woman to be a White House Chef. I doubt there is going be a movement to replace the first minority chef with an old white guy.