Saturday, October 05, 2013

White House In Shutdown: Executive Chef Cris Comerford Is Still Cooking For President Obama

Day Five:  A dog walker for First Dogs Sunny and Bo is still on duty, too...
Washington, DC - White House officials this week have been tight-lipped about which chefs remain on cooking duty for President Barack Obama and the First Family during the government shutdown, with staff at 1600 Pennsylvania reduced to what Press Secretary Jay Carney describes as a "skeletal" crew.  But a White House source on Saturday confirmed exclusively to Obama Foodorama that Executive Chef Cris Comerford is still at her post.  (Above, Comerford is at right with POTUS at a pre-shutdown event) 

"I saw Comerford at work yesterday," said the White House source, "right before the President left for lunch."  

Though Comerford was on duty, the President on Friday afternoon strolled to nearby Taylor Gourmet to grab a take-out hoagie and blast House Republicans for keeping the government closed.  

The First Family is in good hands with the talented and experienced Comerford, who has been running the White House kitchen as Top Toque since 2005, when she was appointed by First Lady Laura Bush.  But Comerford was already on staff as Sous Chef the last time there was a government shutdown seventeen years ago, when President Bill Clinton was in office.

Still, Comerford typically operates with a full-time staff of more than a dozen chefs, and she now has little support.  

Comerford is now one of just 15 staffers who have not been furloughed from the 90-member Executive Residence staff, which includes chefs, butlers, housekeepers, and ushers.  The small crew remaining on the job during the shutdown will offer what is described by the Office of Management and Budget as "minimum maintenance and support" for the First Family in the six-story, 132-room mansion that's filled with priceless art and antiques.  

All the same, that major reduction in Residence staff doesn't mean the President and First Lady Michelle Obama are cooking, or doing their own dishes, or polishing furniture, or even walking their dogs, Bo and Sunny, if they don't feel like it:  There's a staffer taking care of that fun job, too, as witnessed on Saturday (more on that below).

During the last government shutdown, Residence staff remaining on duty included one chef for the day and one for the evening, who left after serving dinner, the AP reported at the time.  One butler and one usher were kept on duty during the day and at night.  There were two housekeepers on duty in the day, and one at night.   

Yet as long as the shutdown continues, the President and First Lady won't be hosting any fancy large-scale events, so Comerford's workload will be far lighter than usual.  The last big White House social event before shutdown was on September 20th, when Mrs. Obama hosted a luncheon honoring America's foremost designers.  Comerford's busiest moment may be when the President and Vice President Joe Biden have their regular private weekly luncheon together at the White House, as they did on Wednesday of this week, Day Two of the shutdown. 

And there are other changes for the President and First Family.

Though Comerford leads the kitchen, Assistant Chef Sam Kass typically cooks weeknight evening meals for the First Family.  He went on furlough on Day One, listed as a "non-essential" employee under OMB guidelines.  But Kass is not on furlough as part of the Residence staff; while he regularly toils over a hot stove, he is now paid as part of the White House Office staff.  The change went into effect last March when Kass was formally named Executive Director of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign.

This summer, for the very first time since he went to work at 1600 Penn in 2009, Kass was listed on the White House's "2013 Annual Report to Congress on White House Staff," which covers the 460 White House Office employees, including Administration officials at the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council.  Kass now makes $125,000 a year, according to the report (PDF).  Like everyone else on furlough, he is not currently receiving a paycheck.  Or cooking.

Kass' upgrade to Executive Director included a title change from Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives to his current title, Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy.  He also went on a one-day furlough in late June, when other White House staffers were furloughed due to sequester-related budget cuts.

In other culinary news, at the moment, the Navy Mess, the White House cafeteria that's operated by culinary specialists from the military, still remains open during the shutdown, serving a limited menu.   

Overall, only a quarter of the 1,700 full-time White House staffers are now on the job.  But a staffer who is not on furlough is still minding the Obamas' two dogs:  I photographed Sunny and Bo on Saturday morning taking an early morning romp on the South Lawn with a staffer.  (Above, Sunny is at the staffer's feet, after having jumped up in excitement.  Bo avoided the sprinkler.)

There was much barking from the 16-month-old Sunny, who arrived at the White House to much fanfare on August 19th.  Both dogs were off leash on Saturday morning, and Sunny was far friskier than her four-year-old brother.

Sunny is also a big fan of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, which she visited during a different South Lawn walk ten days ago.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama, except for top photo, by Pete Souza/White House, taken at the first Kids' State Dinner in August of 2012.