Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Walter Scheib Interview, Part II: Everything You've Heard About a Local, Organic and Sustainable White House is Wrong...

This is Part II in a series of interviews with Walter Scheib, the White House Executive Chef ex officio. Part I is here. (Mr. Scheib, above, with President Bill Clinton in 1996)

Since election night, foodies and arm-chair policy wonks have flooded the airwaves with advice for Barack Obama about every aspect of food and agriculture. Many of the calls for action are for changing things in the White House kitchen, and they've been based on a lack of knowledge about what actually goes on there. Walter Scheib (pictured) has been quietly trying to correct this disinformation campaign, and he's one of the few people who has the inside scoop. Mr. Scheib was hired by First Lady Hillary Clinton to be Executive Chef at the White House in 1994, and stayed on to work for the George W. Bushes through 2005. He chronicles his eleven years cooking everything from treats for Chelsea Clinton to huge dinners for global power players in his book White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Families, One Kitchen. It's an excellent read.

In Part I of our interview with Mr. Scheib, we discussed current White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, and the campaign by high-profile foodies to get her replaced with a rock-starish chef who was visibly and obviously on the local/organic sustainable bandwagon. The campaign was ultimately pointless; on Friday, Michelle Obama announced that Ms. Comerford will continue on as EC. So now we're moving on to a couple of other very popular points of contention in the food world: The calls for the White House kitchen to be ostentatiously converted to a local, organic and sustainable showpiece for the nation, and the attendant planting of a symbolic--but very useful--organic kitchen garden on the White House lawn. (In pic: Mr. Scheib with First Lady Hillary Clinton and guests)

As part of the foodie campaign to make the White House a symbol of progressive eating, legendary chef/activist Alice Waters (pictured), along with restaurateur Danny Meyer and Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl sent an open letter to Barack, offering their services as his Kitchen Cabinet to help choose his Top Toque, and get his "public" eating in line with the most progressive foodie thinking. A coalition of farmers, writers, chefs, and policy advocates created the Food Democracy Now! campaign, which describes itself as "a grassroots movement dedicated to...creating a new food system that is capable of meeting the changing needs of American society as it relates to food, health, animal welfare and the environment." The organization is based in Iowa, and directed by David Murphy, an advocate for sustainable agriculture; Niman Ranch Pork Company founder Paul Willis, an Iowa hog farmer; Aaron Woolf, director of the documentary King Corn; and Lisa Stokke of Iowa. They're calling for sustainability-minded foodists to be appointed to positions in the USDA, and have a petition urging Barack to get on board. Important stuff, we might add, for those interested in changing the foodscape in America. Over at the Chef's Collaborative, a lovely non-profit dedicated to educating both Chefs and eaters about sustainability and local growing, there's another open letter that's been signed by high-profile chefs and activists (including the Waters contingent), urging Barack to adopt responsible foodie practices in the White House--and to tell us about this. Lower-profile bloggers and writers, and eaters and gardeners--and there are about a kabillion of 'em--have repeated these demands in all kinds of ways. And two different groups have been lobbying very enthusiastically to transform the White House lawn into an organic kitchen garden: Kitchen Gardeners International, run by Roger Doiron, has the Eat The View project, and Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow have been traveling around the country since July, on a converted school bus with an organic garden on its roof, as part of their White House Organic Farm Project. Both groups have appeared in international media, on NPR, on your friendly local blog. The bros on the bus have also been spreading the word at food fests, and visiting schools around the country, to the delight of many children who can't believe there's such a kooky vehicle in existence, and that it has fresh veggies on top (the WHO bus, pictured).

And it seems like every day, someone else in the foodie world is calling on The Obamas to make the same kind of public culi changes. Nicholas D. Kristof suggested a Secretary of Food in a recent New York Times Op-Ed. Christoper Cook weighed in with Change We Can eat: An Immodest Proposal For Changing Obama's Food Policy, on the excellent Civil Eats blog. Tim Zagat, the CEO of the popular Zagat Survey, posted Heating Up The White House Kitchen on Huffington Post. We could continue with the references, and we haven't even mentioned all the various petitions surrounding the selection of a Secretary of Agriculture...but we'll stop with the purely culinary-skewing part of the program. Bam's been hit from every angle in the foodie world, to get with a program of culi change.

But here's the kicker with all the demands: Mr. Scheib told us that much of what's being lobbied for is already absolutely standard practice in the White House. He was hired by Hillary Clinton specifically to change White House food service from a classical European, butter-and-cream aesthetic to a contemporary American cuisine that relied on seasonal, local and regional ingredients...and this included organics. Although Mr. Scheib was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he'd already had a personal local/sustainable American-cuisine awakening while he was the Executive Chef at The Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia.

"A lot of what I learned at CIA was out of style about five minutes after I graduated," Mr. Scheib said. "It was classical European, and the restaurant world was moving away from that. We had a whole semester on decorating foods, and no-one wanted that anymore. It was like Passenger Pigeons, gone in five seconds flat. I had to adapt my education really quickly to cook in the real world."

Mr. Scheib said his menus at The Greenbrier reflected his new enthusiasm for locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. He also started introducing ethnic cooking elements that had been brought into America by immigrants into his dynamic. (In pic, Mr. Scheib in private life).

And he carried this straight in to the White House when he started cooking for The Clintons; it was part of the reason he was chosen to be Executive Chef. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton had refused to hold any formal State Dinners until she found the chef she believed represented the New America she and Bill were trying to create in the White House. They'd been in Washington for more than fifteen months by the time Mr. Scheib showed up and instituted vast changes.

"I can't go too deeply into it with specific names," Mr. Scheib said, "Because I don't want to expose any of the providers that are still used, but we always sourced our ingredients from local places--farm stands and farm markets, the local farmers' markets in DC. We'd go to Lancaster county and buy from people who were growing it themselves, particularly the Amish. We shopped all over for the freshest local foods possible, and always cooked seasonally. We weren't ordering crates of food from [Big Ag suppliers]."

And the emphasis on organics became even more important when the Bushes arrived in the White House. Laura Bush was "adamant" about organics, according to Mr. Scheib. He noted that for two presidential families with such wildly different politics, food jumped bipartisan lines. The Bushes were just as thrilled with his take on American cuisine as The Clintons.

Foodie disinformation myth #1 busted.

And as for a kitchen garden at the White House? There's already one there, according to Mr. Scheib. It's on the roof of the third story, which is the private residence, and Mr. Scheib and his staff used it regularly when he was Executive Chef.

"You know, there was a little dressed up scarecrow," Mr. Scheib said. "We grew plenty of things that we used in the kitchen. Peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and squashes...they'd be started at the Park Service greenhouses, and brought over to the White House. We had fresh products from April to October, which we could physically harvest ourselves. You'd walk up half a flight of stairs and grab whatever you needed."

And was the garden organic?

"Not certified organic," Mr. Scheib said. "But everything was absolutely grown without pesticides and fertilizers. I guess it's what these days we call 'natural.'" The term 'garden ' is subjective...to call our rooftop growing a full-on kitchen garden is perhaps a little romantic. It was all containers and tubs, but it was an important part of the food preparation."

Mr. Scheib told us that there's also a big herb garden down on the ground level of the White House, and he would use fresh herbs when they were in season. Both gardens are maintained by the same Park Service gardening staff who take care of the rest of the White House gardens.

We could almost feel Mr. Scheib politely rolling his eyes, through the phone line, when we asked him what he thought about actually converting the entire White House lawn into an organic garden as a global symbol of The Obama's commitment to all things dirt-tek and good. He pointed out that the campaigns are misdirected, because there's only one "decider" on all kitchen and garden issues, and that's the current First Lady. (Pic is Barugula Obama)

"I'll tell you this," Mr. Scheib said. "If it's something Michelle Obama wants and she gets behind it, it will happen beyond fast. Anything anybody else says is not worth a nickel. Especially in the first months when a new family moves in to the White House, everyone is going out of their way to make sure they have exactly what they want...it would move at lightening speed if the First Lady says so. Whatever the First Lady wants, it happens, so if [a garden on the lawn] is the kind of statement she wants to make, it will happen."

Mr. Scheib said he obviously has no real idea about Michelle Obama's position on this--which puts him in the same category as everyone else on the planet. But he added that it's not possible to "bum rush Michelle Obama into anything she's not really interested in. All these proposals are very positive, but it's entirely up to the First Lady."

So, there it is. The truth about the White House foodosphere. And let's keep in mind that Mr. Scheib trained current White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, and she's continued to use the same garden, and the same food sources. Our White House has been a progressive foodie paradise all along (we hesitate to call it radical, because that term was tossed a bit too freely during Election Season...). (Pic is Ms. Comerford, off the clock)

When we asked Mr. Scheib how he accounts for all the disinformation that's been flying around the foodosphere, he was sanguine.

"No one was interested in this [White House kitchen practices] before," Mr. Scheib said. "No one felt the need to publicize this. It wasn't so much about policy and making statements. I can't stress enough that part of cooking at the White House is protecting the families' privacy. Food choices were considered private choices, and broadcasting them wasn't in the program."

Another clue as to why there's been the pandemic presumption of "bad" foodie practices appears in foodie writer Kim Severson's New York Times piece Is A New Food Policy on Obama's List?, the cover story of the food section on Christmas Eve, which posited Barack as St. Nick for foodies. Ms. Severson points out that George Bush "aligned himself with large agricultural companies like Cargill and Monsanto that some advocates for sustainable agriculture and organic food fight against." This has led to the suspicions that the White House couldn't possibly have any kind of forward-thinking food program in place. Ms. Severson also quoted a bevy of food and ag policy wonks about the need for great changes in food policy in general, and in the White House in particular (your blogger was also in this story, in the interest of full disclosure); Ruth Reichl repped the fantasy Kitchen Cabinet, some of the the Food Democracy Now! founders were quoted. This article caused Mr. Scheib so much ire that he wrote a letter of protest about the Kitchen Cabinet to the Times editor, in which he pointed out that "the presumptions...that the admirable agenda they espouse is not currently the practice in the White House kitchens, are false." He stressed all aspects of the local/sustainable organic White House in his letter, but instead of anyone from the Times picking up the ball and reporting on this, it remained buried in the inner pages of the newspaper.

And did the foodies themselves listen to Mr. Scheib? Have they stopped their campaigns? Has Ms. Waters or Ms. Reichl contacted him? Mr. Scheib said no one has bothered to ask for clarifications.

"Look, Alice Waters is the Godmother of American cooking," Mr. Scheib said, and laughed. "I'm just a grain of sand on her beach."

Well, hardly. Mr. Scheib is a much-sought after public speaker, and has a coveted foodie job as the Culinary Director for Hershey Entertainment and Resorts. He seems to be on the go all the time, whether it's showing up at the James Beard Foundation, or chatting about his book. Mr. Scheib is continuing his local/organic and sustainable sourcing practices while he revamps the food service at Hershey, and he said that it's been quite surprising to him that looking to chefs to set food policy is now considered not only fine, but mandatory. He noted that local/organic and sustainable foods are where the entire food service industry needs to head, due to the huge number of college students who are interested in the progressive food movement.

"The college kids want to know everything about their food: What's the carbon footprint, the ethnic derivation of farmer, whether it's sustainably grown--and it's not a fetish," Mr. Scheib said. "These people are deadly earnest about it. And in ten-twelve years, they're going to be the thirty-year olds dining out, they'll be the lifeblood of the best hotels and restaurants. There's just a huge sea change coming that's ethically driven, and it's all about green, and sustainably raising and harvesting of food."

We'd like to point out that these same college students are also voters. So while the calls to transform the White House kitchen might be based on disinformation, the demands to publicize this part of the Obama foodosphere is completely smart. It makes perfect sense politically for The Obamas, and as a way to further publicize the progressive foodie movement, which at this moment in time is collectively dealing with the fact that most people have no idea where their food comes from--and they probably don't care. There's also the ancillary idea that if "our fellow Americans" have it hammered home that The Obamas eat healthfully, maybe food habits will change across the board, too. Still, no one is quite sure exactly how First Family behaviour really translates into public change...and there's that niggling privacy issue. How much of The Obama Life should the public have access to? If Barack has a jones for a Kit Kat, do we really need to know? Lastly, no one's been calling for Big Ag companies to get out of the processed food biz, and to stop controlling eighty percent of the food supply (Hello? FTC? How about a trustbusting case on this one?), which would go a huge way toward changing food culture in the US. And no one's calling to make fast food illegal; both seem like equally important for changing the unhealthy eating habits for all of America....

But Mr. Scheib has obviously been on the leading edge of the local/orgo program, and it's a shame no one has noticed.

Finally, we had to ask Mr. Scheib what he's doing for The Onauguration, if he has any special plans? Is he cooking something special?

This got perhaps the biggest laugh of all from Mr. Scheib. He's cooked for more internationally famous people and Heads of State than perhaps any other chef in the US, and he said that while he wishes Obama all good luck, he's thrilled to celebrate The Onaugration quietly, at home. We're pretty sure the words "kitchen nightmare" were mentioned, and yet we can't find them in our notes....

*White House pics are courtesy of Mr. Scheib. Our thanks to him for setting the record straight....

*Part I of the Walter Scheib interviews is here; Part III is here.