WASHINGTON — People are always curious about what the first families eat, how they entertain foreign dignitaries and friends, and where they dine out.
Food writers are no different, so they packed the sessions on those topics during the Association of Food Journalists conference in the nation’s capital in September.
A panel of four current and former White House chefs shared some insight on what and how the first family eats. Panelists were Cristeta Comerford, White House executive chef since August 2005, who was hired by Laura Bush; Bill Yosses, current White House pastry chef, who “came during the Bush White House to help out” for a party and never left; French-born pastry chef Roland Mesnier, who was hired in 1979 by first lady Rosalyn Carter and retired in 2006; and Frank Ruta, now chef-owner of Palena Restaurant in Washington who went to work in the Carter White House in January 1980 as an assistant chef. He left in 1987, but returned the next year as executive sous chef at the request of Nancy Reagan and remained until April 1991.
“The White House is first and foremost a home,” Yosses said. “That was the biggest adjustment for me. In a restaurant you know the customer will select” from certain items, but in the White House “each occasion is different.”
And, “every family eats leftovers,” Comerford said, pointing out that “the president’s family shoulders the cost of its own food.”
Groceries bought for regular family meals are kept separate from those purchased for state dinners and other official functions, she said.
“Our focus is healthy cooking for the first family,” Comerford said. “It’s not about us as chefs. At the end of the day, you have to please the people you’re cooking for.”
So, do presidents send notes when there are dishes they never want made again?
“They don’t send a note. They come to the kitchen,” Mesnier said.
Ruta said he knew George H.W. Bush wasn’t fond of broccoli, but did offer him a broccoli dish that Barbara Bush insisted he would love. He didn’t.
“Maybe she was setting me up,” Ruta said of the former first lady.
Bill Clinton didn’t like pecan pie, recalled Mesnier. Yosses once made a chocolate pecan pie for the Obamas, and “word came back don’t try it again.”
The Obamas also don’t care for beets, Comerford learned after serving a dish with beets once.
For state dinners, the chefs usually make and time all the dishes in advance to eliminate any chance for error. This also allows the first lady to sample the food and make final choices.
Still, all the chefs recalled having near disasters at state dinners. Mesnier said he was making hot raspberry soufflés that required 100 egg whites — and they wouldn’t whip. He started over twice, dumping out both batches. Then he overhead other chefs talking about mayonnaise they had made that morning in the mixer. The residual oil left on the bowl was sabotaging his egg whites.
He started over for a third time, this time with a clean bowl. To speed up the cooking process, the soufflés were begun on the stove top and then put in the oven at the highest heat possible.
“We were ready just in time, down to the second,” he recalled.
Ruta said when he was at the White House, state dinners were prepared “by four chefs on the savory side plus Roland in the same kitchen.” In today’s White House, on a daily basis Comerford is assisted by three sous chefs and a steward.
“For state dinners, we have six to 12 extra people.”
Questions about presidents’ children elicited a few stories. Amy Carter would make her own cookies, Ruta said.
“She’d make a mess,” Mesnier added. “She’d put them in the oven and then go off and roller skate.”
Chelsea Clinton went down to the White House kitchen for cooking lessons before leaving for college. But, neither Comerford or Yosses would speak about the Obama daughters, other than to say they “come down once in a while.”
Today’s state dinners consist of five courses served to 136 people, Comerford said. The dinners last exactly 55 minutes and are individually plated “at the last minute in the old family dining room” because the kitchen is too small, she said.
This is “the hardest part of the meal,” but at full speed, “we can crank out 50 plates in seven minutes.”
When Ruta and Mesnier were in the White House, nothing was plated for state dinners. They were served family style on 13 large platters, Ruta said. Hillary Clinton ordered the change, and the outspoken Mesnier still isn’t happy about the change.
“I think platter service is much nicer because you can choose what you want. And, the platters were always beautiful and festive. I hate plate service. When that came to the White House, I really resented it. Most of my desserts were plattered to the very end.”
Comerford said it is “faster to plate ahead. It takes longer to pass platters.”
Asked about seconds for guests, Mesnier said, “No seconds and no doggie bags. No special diets except we did do kosher.”
Comerford contradicted him, saying, “We never deny a guest anything.”
“That’s new,” Mesnier said.
What are some of the foods presidents like? The Obamas do enjoy small portions of double-crust fruit pies, Yosses said. “President Reagan was crazy about sugar confectioneries,” Mesnier said.
He also recalled that President Clinton often took guests down to the pastry closet when the kitchen staff was gone. The staff eventually put up a sign that read, “Please, night visitor, turn light off.”
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