At National Archives last week, three former White House chefs spilled the beans, and what First Family’s member’s name would you imagine was mentioned the most? From among the Bushes (both sets), the Carters, the Clintons, and the Reagans?
Spot-on! You know these people, don’t you? Nancy Reagan, why, of course!
The Clintons came in third for most mentions, followed by Barbara and George Bush, and George II and Laura Bush were never mentioned that I heard. (Since only one chef in the Archives spotlight, Roland Mesnier, served them, maybe?)
Chef Mesnier worked for five presidents from Jimmy Carter through George Bush II; Chef Frank Ruta worked for Carter, Reagan, and Bush I; and Chef Pierre Chambrin made tasty for Bush I and the Clintons.
The chefs talked informally on stage at Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater with NPR’s Susan Stamberg who served as moderator.
When Chef Mesnier got rolling, the event seemed at times like National Archives’ Comedy Central.
Mrs. Reagan liked “pretty food,” said Chef Mesnier, who noted that presentation was very important to her, and Ruta agreed. She didn’t like “grey food,” said Mesnier, and wanted “color, color, color” (tomatoes). “She expected food to be superior at every meal.”
She and President Reagan often ate breakfast together in bed, Ruta said (juice, fruit, cereal, toast), and Mrs. Reagan always had dessert with lunch and with dinner. He didn’t like liver; she did, and she ate it when he was out of town. (“You say “‘liv-ER,'” and I say “LIV-ur.'”) She also “loved artichokes,” said Mesnier.
Chef Ruta said the Reagans sometimes ate dinner on TV trays, but their meals were always formal, whereas the Carters “were more of a family” who saved leftovers for Amy Carter’s school lunches.
The best indicator of satisfactory meals, said Chef Mesnier, was “when the plates came back from the dining room… .Did anyone want seconds?” For aspiring White House chefs he had some advice: “Just listen and talk to the butlers.”
None of the chefs revealed any kitchen secrets, unless it was a recipe which came up several times: Rosalynn Carter’s cheddar cheese ring (pimentos, grated cheddar, and mayo (any Swiss? I have a similar recipe) which surrounded strawberry preserves. Chef Mesnier said no one ever ate the strawberry preserves, and he believes they are still in storage somewhere in the White House.
Chef Ruta said he came into the White House kitchen one morning to find President Carter’s mother, Lillian, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He found it shocking and offered her a china cup instead, which she turned down. He remembers the scene which he still finds unsettling, he said.
The first families pay their own food bills, except when it comes to state dinners when the State Department pays, and sometimes a political party foots the bill. Chef Ruta, now the chef and owner of Palena Restaurant in Washington, said state dinners seldom diverge from 13 tables with 10 persons at each.
White House chefs work long hours, and one of the longest stretches was 24 hours when the century turned, and the Clintons were in office. (Can you imagine?) The evening began with a sit-down dinner for 750 persons, Chef Mesnier said, followed by a midnight meal for 1,250 more, followed by a breakfast buffet for several hundred.
“My hardest job then,” said Chef Mesnier, “was keeping the staff awake.”
During the Clinton terms, Chef Chambrin said orders were “no grease, no butter, no cream” and how can you cook like that? He shrugged: That “didn’t go too well with me.”
No gifts of food ever touch the lips of first family members, including two huge tins of Russian caviar sent over by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to the Reagans. Chef Mesnier told the Secret Service: “‘I’m willing to die for it,'” and he took one tin, and another chef took the other. Leftover food from fancy dinners is given to the staff.
It is “never good” to try something new on the First Family, said Chef Chambrin. There is no room for error since there is “a lot of pressure.” Not only are you cooking for the First Family, but you may be serving up a State Dinner the same day for 150, said Chef Ruta.
A White House chef has got to be creative since they must make meals for the same family 365 days a year, he said. “It’s not so much they demand different things,” but the White House chefs always want to make the First Family happy.
“We are the servers, and whoever forgets that is in trouble,” said Chef Mesnier. Chefs “cannot put our political thought into the food….the less you are seen, the better off you are.”
White House groceries are purchased in stealth by staff members in unmarked trucks.
President Bush I did not like broccoli nor Brussels sprouts, and Barbara Bush blamed her weight gain on Chef Chambrin, he said. (He is now the executive chef at the Saint Louis Club in Clayton, Missouri.)
The chefs all spoke in glowing terms about all the children in the White House. None, none (repeat) of them ever were disrespectful or discourteous or demanded any special attention, the chefs agreed, unless it was Amy Carter when she made cookies.
It took three days to clean up the mess, said Ruta. “She put those cookies in the oven and then went off to roller skate,” and that was that. And they loved her: “Amy was a great kid,” said Mesnier, and Chelsea Clinton was “absolutely delightful, so pleasant and so nice to have [around].”
The greatest White House memory for the chefs, Mesnier said, will always be the wonderful children. (He now travels the globe teaching and promoting his books.)
When asked by a young woman in the audience to name the most staple item in a kitchen, Ruta said “a good knife,” and from Mesnier, “a boyfriend who can cook.”