WASHINGTON – In waves of humility,comedy and passion,three former White House chefs recalled their experiences with the first families they served during a discussion Wednesday at the National Archives.
They hashed out what worked,what didn’t and how they determined each.
“There is a certain creativity you have to have,” Frank Ruta said. “It’s not so much that they demand a variety of things. It’s just that you want to show that you can do a variety of things.”
Ruta,who owns Palena restaurant in Washington,went from Pennsylvania to Pennsylvania Avenue as assistant chef for Jimmy Carter,then as personal lunch and dinner chef and executive sous-chef for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
He along with French-born Roland Mesnier,who was the head pastry chef in the White House for 25 years during the Carter,Reagan,Bush and Bill Clinton administrations,said the chefs always varied the menu,even if only by degrees.
Mesnier,who has written several books about food,said it was nearly impossible for the families to have a favorite dish because of the variety.
Some first families went to the chefs with their own family recipes. One of the most notable Mesnier and Ruta experienced was Rosalynn Carter’s cheese ring – grated cheddar cheese,pimento cheese and mayonnaise formed into a ring with strawberry preserves in the center.
“Which nobody ate,” Mesnier said. “I think we made one and would keep bringing it out. It’s like a fruit cake. I bet you go back to the White House even today and there’s still one in the freezer.”
Susan Stamberg,National Public Radio special correspondent who moderated the event,asked the chefs about how they responded when they had to fill requests such as the cheese ring or Richard’s Nixon’s daily request for cottage cheese and ketchup,which none of these chefs ever dealt with.
“You just do it with a smile,” Mesnier said. “You don’t even try to understand.”
Pierre Chambrin,now chef at a St. Louis club, was executive chef during the elder Bush and Clinton’s presidencies and said following the Clintons’ kitchen rules was difficult.
“No grease,no butter,no cream,which didn’t work well with me,” the Parisian native said.
But Mesnier said more than taste had to be taken into account when preparing to serve the first family. He said he considered the political climate as well as the weather and adjusted accordingly.
“Even though we wrote a weekly menu for the family,many times we would change on our own,” Mesnier said. “‘No,I cannot give them that because the news of the day don’t go with that.’”
Catering to the first family,of course,comes with more responsibility than daily family meals. Chambrin said chefs must serve a dual role.
“I think in the White House,you have to be a cook and,at the same time,a chef because one day you have to cook for one or two persons,and the following week you have to cook for 1,000,” Chambrin said. “There is no margin for error,and that’s a lot of pressure.”
Ruta said that at Christmastime it’s common for the kitchen staff to work from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to serve all the parties.
“I don’t know that that’s that unusual for a kitchen,” Ruta said. “That’s just the way it is, how you have to get it done.”
Mesnier said for the millennium new year,the staff worked for 24 hours straight,preparing a sit-down meal for 750 people,a midnight buffet for 1,250 and a 5 a.m. breakfast buffet for 600.
“My biggest job that night was keeping the staff awake,” Mesnier said. “It is part of the job. When you are a chef,you cannot simply say,‘Oh,it is time for me to go home,’ when you are in the middle of baking or cooking something.”
The chefs related a few anecdotes about the families,such as Nancy Reagan’s insistence on excellence and interesting food.
“She hated what she called ‘gray food,’” Mesnier said. “She wanted California – color,color,color!”
Mesnier and Ruta talked about 9-year-old Amy Carter’s attempt to make cookies.
“What a mess,” Ruta said,fondly. “There was cookie dough everywhere.”
“The next morning she would come into the kitchen,” Mesnier said. “‘Roland,do you have some cookies? Mine didn’t turn out so good last night.’ ‘Sure,I’ll fix you a bag of cookies.’”
Mesnier said the main part of the job was simply to serve.
“The thing that you must not forget is at the White House,we are not star chefs,we are not TV chefs,we do not work for the Food Network – thank God – we are servants,” he said. “And whoever forgets that makes a terrible mistake.”
Reach reporter Hope Rurik at [email protected] or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.