Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Food Fight: Current And Former White House Chefs Dish On Their Presidential Service

An old feud gets re-ignited as four chefs spill secrets past and present, including revealing 'Rhubarbgate' in the First Lady's Kitchen Garden...

By Marian Burros

With nuggets about an old kitchen feud and a miffed former pastry chef, not to mention a Kitchen Garden controversy dubbed "Rhubarbgate," current and former White House chefs amused, surprised and even enlightened the annual gathering of the Association of Food Journalists last week in Washington. During a panel discussion, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, Frank Ruta, private chef to the Carters, and Roland Mesnier, the pastry chef who reigned for 26 years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were equal parts forthcoming and withholding as they took questions from the audience. (Above: Comeford, l, and Yosses at the event)

I was asked to moderate because I have covered the White House and its kitchen since the Johnson Administration. But even I learned things I have always wondered about but had never been able to extract while covering President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

White House chefs are generally not known for their frankness. Even when they retire from serving their country, they remain fairly discreet. With one exception: Mesnier, who has written four books, puts on faux State Dinners for those willing to pay, and regales audiences with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the White House from Carter through Bush 2. Mesnier was on a roll during the panel, as he cheerily bashed a former White House chef and the current Top Toques, and Mrs. Obama's world-famous Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn. (Above: Mesnier at the White House in 2004)

Comerford and Yosses were of course far more discreet.  They referred some questions to their White House handler, who was in the audience, for permission to divulge what seemed innocuous, like: Do Malia and Sasha Obama ever go into the kitchen to cook?

The final answer was: Sometimes. A few years ago, Mrs. Obama regaled a handful of reporters with a tale of Sasha searing tuna under the tutelage of the chefs, but she generally steers clear of the topic.

Do the Obamas eat 'real' desserts with family dinners? Yes, but not every day. They particularly like double-crusted fruit pies. These might normally provide six to eight slices, but Yosses cuts ten servings, to reduce calories.

“I don’t go with spa desserts,” Yosses said. “Desserts can be part of a healthy lifestyle, not three times a day and not big portions.”

The First Family pays for their own food, Comerford said, and they definitely eat leftovers. Meals are planned around what is currently growing in the First Lady's garden, which produces vegetables year round.

Is Mrs. Obama, like other First Ladies, involved in the menu choices for State dinners? Very.

Does she samples the menu items in advance? Yes. Several menus are presented at a luncheon that includes a few others, and always someone from the Social Office, but never anyone from the West Wing.

Presidential food preferences...

Of course people always want to know Presidents' favorite foods, and an equal subject of interest is things they dislike. So what else won’t President Obama eat, besides beets? Chocolate Pecan Pie.

Yosses reasoned that since his boss likes pecan pie, he would like chocolate pecan pie. Wrong! Word came back: Never serve another one.

Mesnier made a similar mistake when he assumed President Bill Clinton would like pecan pie because he is a Southerner. “Don’t try that again,” he was told.

Ruta, who now owns the much-admired Palena restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, thought he was on safe ground when he served a certain broccoli recipe to President George H.W. Bush. Ruta was told to make it by First Lady Barbara Bush, despite the fact that her husband did not like broccoli.

The President “just did not care for it one bit,” Ruta said. He went into the kitchen and personally told the chef: Never serve it again.

“Maybe she was setting me up,” Ruta added about Mrs. Bush. “I don’t know.”

And what happens if the kitchen discovers it needs an ingredient that isn’t in the White House? Is there a run to a local market?

“If there is no one else to go I go,” said Comerford. “And if someone recognizes me I say “No, no.”

Rhubarbgate: Mesnier is dubious about some giant Kitchen Garden plants...
Mesnier wondered aloud about a picture that appeared in the press, showing children with Mrs. Obama in the Kitchen Garden, waving huge stalks of rhubarb beside a raised bed of jumbo rhubarb plants (above).

Having grown up in a family in France that always had an extensive garden, Mesnier was dubious. He said it takes three or four years for rhubarb to grow as large as it was in the picture.

“I know something about rhubarb and someone is not telling the truth,” Mesnier said.

“You have totally caught Rhubarbgate,” Yosses responded as the audience roared. “A farmer brought us big rhubarb plants” to start the garden; “we had a lot of help from many parts of Washington, D.C. ”

According to Yosses, not only are a lot of plants for the Kitchen Garden sprouted in a greenhouse, but there is also “a nursery that is part of our support system, and that includes additional farmer friends.”

For Rhubarbgate, farmer Jim Crawford, who grows vegetables on his 95-acre New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, provided the very mature rhubarb plants. He leads one of the largest organic farm marketing co-ops in the US, and is featured in Mrs. Obama's book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

Crawford "offered excellent advice on soil, plants and design to help our Kitchen Garden take root," Mrs. Obama wrote.

This helps to explain a mystery that has puzzled Kitchen Garden watchers. Almost immediately after harvesting vegetables for White House use, the empty spots in the crop rows are replenished with full-grown plants so the garden always looks perfect. It is visible to the hundreds of tourists who gather daily behind the fenceline to view the White House.

In the past, aides have denied that the White House has another garden, and it doesn't. The mature plants are from other people’s gardens.

Mesnier is also miffed that there has been so much press about the Kitchen Garden.

“There has been a garden at the White House for years," Mesnier said. "This is not news."

Mesnier was comparing some barrels on the White House roof planted with herbs and a few vegetables that hardly anyone knew about and no one but kitchen staff saw to the extensive plantings on the South Lawn, used as a way to teach young children that vegetables are important and can taste great.

Mesnier also said that Yosses, who is quite involved in the Kitchen Garden, should not be.

“A pastry chef should be in the kitchen cooking,” Mesnier said in a conversation prior to the panel.

The decline of the White House kitchen...and a feud...
Mesnier is a superb story teller, with a quick sense of humor, often at the expense of others, and he had the audience in stitches with his very jaundiced view that the White House kitchen has declined dramatically since his departure in 2004.

The kitchen is no longer a classic French kitchen, and desserts have been modernized--no more spun sugar, no more architectural fantasies. Summed up: Nothing is as good at the White House as the good old days when Mesnier was there, when every large event featured an extravagant final creation that took weeks of planning.

But as he himself said: “You ask me and I tell you and if I don’t know it I make it up.” Clearly.

Mesnier certainly doesn’t approve of the Obamas' food: “It isn’t showy enough anymore at the White House.”

In part because platter service, known as Russian service or French service, has been replaced by plated, or restaurant, service.

“The White House is a private home and platter service is much nicer and you can choose what you want,” Mesnier said. “I am always in favor of beautifully decorated platter service.”

And in case the audience didn’t fully appreciate how he feels about plated service, Mesnier reiterated:

“I hate plate service. I know for a fact that every First Lady liked platter service.”

Not willing to leave it there, Mesnier added: “It was discontinued because one certain guy didn’t know how to make it and the platter had to be replenished and the First Lady didn’t like that.”

“One certain guy” was a reference to Walter Scheib III, the Executive Chef who was hired by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton specifically to bring an American sensibility to meals at the White House, and that included plate service. Scheib is the chef who hired Comerford as his sous chef, and she became the first woman to lead the kitchen when he departed. (Above: Scheib in the WH kitchen)

Comerford appeared to contradict Mesnier: “Mrs. Clinton started plate service during Walter Scheib’s time,” she said. “It takes less time. It is convenient and comfortable.”

She explained that State dinners must be served in 55 minutes, which also means there are no seconds, though Comerford said the White House would never say no to someone who asked for more.

Asked for comment about Mesnier, Scheib said he has always thought the pastry chef considered him a rival for attention.

“He is factually wrong," Scheib said. "Mrs. Clinton hired me with the intention of doing away with platter service. She wanted to get away from platters because, she said: ‘It is not contemporary service.’ That wasn’t my call.”

About one aspect of life below stairs in the White House Mesnier had no complaints: The regulation that requires any food sent unrequested to the White House as gifts be destroyed for safety reasons.

One afternoon, Mesnier and the Executive Chef at the time were the only people in the kitchen when two large tins of caviar arrived “directly from the Kremlin to the White House,” he said, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev had been in Washington. The security instructions: Destroy the contents.

Mesnier looked at the other chef and said: “I don’t know about you but I’m willing to die for this.”

That night one of the unopened tins left the kitchen with Mesnier, and the other with the Executive Chef.

Mesnier hasn’t been back to the White House since Bush 2 and he remains miffed.

“After 26 years you expect a little gesture at the holidays--a dozen cookies. Something--but nothing."

Recipes for some of the White House holiday cookies Mesnier is not being sent are collected on the sidebar of the blog; he might enjoy the White House Holiday Gingerbread Cookies, since he typically builds a lavish gingerbread mansion at Mount Vernon, President George Washington's home, during the holidays.

As for a favorite Obama pie recipe: The newest double-crust fruit pie recipe that was released is White House Huckleberry Pie, which has been served at each of the Obamas' Thanksgiving celebrations.

Some of the food writers who attended the panel also had a tour of the Kitchen Garden last Saturday, led by Comerford and Yosses, who explained the first-ever beehive and showed the early Fall bounty (above, in action).

Marian Burros joined Obama Foodorama in 2011 after a long career as a correspondent and food critic for the New York Times. She is also the author of numerous cookbooks.

*Top photo by Tim Carman/Washington Post; Mesnier photo/White House; Scheib photo courtesy of the chef; rhubarb photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; last photo by Lee Svitak Dean, food editor at Minneapolis Star Tribune.