Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Kitchen Cabinet: Choices For The New White House Executive Chef

Update at bottom of post.
The Executive Chef at the White House doesn't historically change when a new President and his family take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. So when we blogged yesterday about the Obamas' visit to The White House, we were being just slightly faux and navel-gazing by pondering who a new White House Executive Chef for the Obamas might be.

But not only were we flooded with emails on the subject by our own readers, but today the subject of a new White House Exec Chef is alllll over the 'net. Seems the entire country is mesmerized by the idea of a First Family that's young, a lil' bit hip, and which actually has small kinder. First-Lady-elect Michelle Obama is already enduring comparisons to Jackie O, and there's much speculation on how she'll run the domestic side of the Executive Branch (above, White House EC Cris Comerford at work in the White House kitchen).

Although it's unlikely that a new Executive Chef will be appointed--and more likely that Cristeta Comerford will remain in her current position--there are all kinds of Fantasy Top Toque lists being created. There are some Rock Star Chef names being floated as of today, but of course, this particular angle has a number of problems.

First, anyone who's really a Rock Star Chef is already running an empire--or at least a couple of restaurants. Who's gonna give up their financial security to relocate to DC, and make bunk pay slaving at The White House? The White House Exec Chef position comes with no job security--you can be fired at the whim of The First Couple, and you don't have any of the Civil Servant protections afforded other government employees.

Second, there's that little prob of security clearance, and background checks. Rock Star Chefs come from Hot Restaurants, and Hot Restaurants are Party Central. Show us a clean and sober high-profile chef and we'll show you...bills for rehab. We're just saying. We're just overgeneralizing. But we have worked in the biz. ever read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential? It wasn't written about the White House kitchen, but you could substitute the name of many high-profile restaurants (and many low-profile ones, too) for Les Halles....

And finally, there's the issue of flat-out cojones. We're not talking testicle cuisine, we're talking cooking for Heads of State, for Kings and Queens, for Celebrities and Sports Stars, and perhaps worst of all, for The Media. The EC of the White House will be responsible for everything from peanut butter and jelly for Malia and Sasha to monster multiple course dinners for hundreds of people. Takes balls, and an equivalent dose of dead calm. Yikes. Hmm, Anthony Bourdain might be the right guy for the job after all (pictured above, cooking with the hard stuff).

The most interesting posts about fictional White House Executive Chef candidates from around the blogosphere:

*Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel says he's heard that Chef Tony Mantuano (pictured), who owns Spiaggia, one of the Obamas' fave restaurants, is under consideration. Mantua denies this, even though the Obamas just had their first post-election date at his restaurant on Saturday. Vettel also says a DC restaurant critic contacted him about steak meister Charlie Trotter as WHEC, but shoots this down. Vettel then makes the case for Art Smith, Oprah's former personal chef:

...an intriguing rumor for a number of reasons. One, the Oprah-Obama connection; Smith already has the Oprah imprimatur. Two, Smith opened a restaurant—Art and Soul—in the Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel in D.C. on Sept. 22; he'll be shuttling between Chicago and Washington anyway. Three, when I called Smith and suggested he was in the running, he was gracious and apologetic but said, "I can't comment on that."

Vettel suggests Kendal Duque of Sepia as an alternate choice; Sepia is a Chicago restaurant favored by Michelle Obama.

*Superchef suggests three female candidates, all based in Chicago: Susie Crofton of Crofton on Wells; Carrie Nahabedian of NAHA; Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe (pictured). Two have gossip to recommend them: Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's new Chief of Staff, used to eat at NAHA once a week, and Stegner has cooked for Michelle Obama at a fundraiser, and is a big advocate of the White House Organic Garden project. Um, nice suggestions, and we like the gal angle.

*CBS2 Chicago says there's much local chat about Chicago Chef Rick Bayless. The Obamas were apparently regulars at Frontera Grill, Bayless' Mexican restaurant; he now cooks at his other joint, Topolobampo. Bayless demurs, saying he's not up to the job. Surely he has too much to do, as a cookery book writer and empire runner.
Update: Bayless was invited to cook the second State Dinner of the Obama administration, in honor of Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, on May 14, 2010. He had a lot of problems.

*The New York Daily News was the first to promo Rick Bayless; and they also like Oprah's former personal chef Art Smith (pictured); and NBA player Carmelo Anthony's personal chef, Daniel Young, who cooked for Prez-elect Obama at The Democratic National Convention. According to Young, "I made lots of fresh, healthy foods" at the DNC. This is counter to what have previously been reported as President Obama's fave foods: Nicorette Gum, Planter's Trail Mix, Chile....

*The Huffington Post parrots the NYDN by promoing Bayless, Smith, and Young, but also misidentifies the current WHEC. They say it's Walter Scheib; really it's Cris Comerford. This post got dozens of comments.

And speaking of Walter Scheib, he's all over the blogopshere now, too, as the go-to bro for all things New White House Chef. Chef Scheib managed to straddle two administrations in his eleven-year reign; he worked for the Clintons and Bush 2.0, until Chef Comerford, his former assistant, took over in 2005, apparently because First Lady Laura Bush asked Scheib to resign. Chef Scheib has written a charming cookery book: White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen. Chef Scheib (say that rilly rilly fast five times!) is now a private caterer; he'll give you the full White House Experience through his special event service, The American Chef. Chef Scheib is credited with introducing contemporary American Cuisine to The White House. Before him, apparently, The White House was serving Euro fare, or, if you believe Coast To Coast radio show, Alien Chow.

*Fox News has just begun a new series, fetchingly titled Obama Chic: The Changing Face of The White House. And today's entry features--shockingly--Chef Scheib, discussing the new White House Chef. This post got more than 350 comments!

*Cross-posted from HaphazardGourmetGirls.com, former home of the weekly column Obama Foodorama, which has now become this blog.

UPDATE: Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford remained in her post. And the Obamas brought Sam Kass, their personal chef, with them to the White House, to be an assistant chef and Mrs. Obama's Food Initiative Coodinator. As of February 2010, Mrs. Obama was running a nation-wide campaign to combat childhood obesity, and changing America's food landscape had become one of the major projects in her portfolio as First Lady. See also: This entire blog....