Chapter OneMY CLINTON YEARS
America On The Menu
Getting the Job, Start Up, and Development
In 1994, I applied for the position of White House Executive Chef and, to my everlasting amazement, was hired.
The interview process for a job like this is, by design, quite taxing-created as much to evaluate the cuisine the candidates will cook as to uncover any temperamental or organizational tics that might prevent them from succeeding in a pressure-cooker environment.
This was a life-altering assignment, even before I began. Surprisingly, the food itself would prove the least challenging aspect; creating an environment in which to provide it was the much bigger task. That, and learning how to function under the intense internal and external scrutiny that greets any new White House team member.
"The chef of the White House just resigned," said my wife Jean, reading from a copy of that morning's New York Times, an article announcing that Pierre Chambrin was leaving after two years in the position, reportedly because he couldn't-or rather wouldn't-break away from rich, traditional French cuisine to cook in the healthful, American style the Clintons desired. The situation was succinctly encapsulated by the article's headline, "High Calories (and Chef!) Out at White House."
She looked up at me. "You should apply for that job."
Under normal circumstances, I might have come to that realization myself. But these weren't normal circumstances. It was the first week of March 1994 and we were boarding a flight from San Diego back to our home of West Virginia, where I had been executive chef of the Greenbrier-an opulent, colonial-style hotel and spa with a number of upscale dining rooms and cafes-for two and a half years. Jean and I lived in a nice house in nearby Lewisburg, where we were raising our two sons, Walter and Jim, then ages five and two, respectively.
Life was good, and I saw no reason to rock the boat.
"Jean," I snapped, "I'm not interested in any job. I just want to get home."
I don't normally speak to my wife in that tone, but this was one of the worst weeks of my life. My mother had just died following a long bout with cancer, and we had flown west for the funeral. All I wanted to do was get home, lick my emotional wounds, and lose myself in my work.
My mother, coincidentally also named Jean, was the person who first introduced me to food and cooking. In the roast-chicken-and-meatloaf days in which I grew up, she was a gourmet who'd clip recipes from magazines, experiment with ingredients most Americans probably couldn't pronounce, and encourage me to try new things such as pot au feu, paella valenciana, and smoked beef tongue. When my father dismissed the idea of cooking school, it was my mother who paid my tuition at the Culinary Institute of America from her personal savings.
In short, I owed her everything. She was my hero and my inspiration, and I was going to miss her more than I'd ever missed anyone or anything.
Jean and I got back to the East Coast, the frosty indifference of winter the perfect reflection of my deep, deep sorrow. Sticking to my plan, I dove right into work.
After trudging through two days, I was home one morning, working at my desk, when Jean said to me, a mischievous glimmer in her eye, "I sent your resume in."
It seemed like a total non sequitur. "What do you mean, you sent my resume? Sent it to who?"
"To the White House."
I was incredulous. "You sent my resume to the White House?"
She couldn't have been more matter of fact. "Yep. You should probably give them a call."
We dropped what we were doing and proceeded to discuss the pros and cons of my going to work for the White House. It quickly became apparent that of the two of us, she was the clear-thinking one at that moment, because there were no cons. We had wanted to move back to D.C., and this would be a plum job, unlike any other in the country, maybe the world.
I walked over to the phone, called D.C. directory assistance, and was connected to the White House. The operator transferred me to the Usher's Office, home base for the staff that runs the First Family's domestic affairs.
An administrative usher answered.
"Hi. My name is Walter Scheib and I sent my resume in for the chef's position."
I was greeted with an undisguised chortle. "Yeah," she said. "You and about four thousand other people."
She went on to explain that so many resumes had arrived that they had been boxed up in crates and set aside temporarily. The picture she painted made me think of that huge warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a hopelessly mammoth hangar from which artifacts are never retrieved.
I politely explained that I was the executive chef of the Greenbrier, and suggested that she or one of her associates dig out my resume and pass it along to the proper authorities.
"I don't for a minute think I'm the only qualified candidate for the job," I told her. "But I know I'm one of the few qualified candidates in those boxes you're talking about."
That might seem a rather boastful claim, but I was immensely proud of my hotel background. Restaurant chefs may get more of the glory in the glossy magazines and television shows, but the multiple kitchens I ran at the Greenbrier and the thousands of meals we served every day gave me great confidence that I had the chops for this assignment. In fact, I was convinced that a hotel chef was the only way to go in their search for a new White House chef.
"O.K. I'll make sure someone looks at it."
I thanked her and hung up, not knowing what to expect.
About four hours later, I got a phone call from a man who identified himself as Gary Walters, the chief usher of the White House. With the efficiency of an attorney, he dispensed with the small talk and got right to the point. "Can you come into town and see us the day after tomorrow?"
Washington, D.C., was about 250 miles from us. I had just returned from some very sad family business that had taken me away from my job. And it didn't make things any easier that I couldn't tell my higher-ups at the Greenbrier why I'd be absent on the day of the interview.
But this was the White House. So I said what any proud American chef would say when the office, or at least the home, of the president called on him: "No problem."
Two days later, I drove to the White House. A Maryland native, I had walked or driven by the "people's house" my whole life, but had always admired it from afar, like any other D.C. resident or tourist.
This time, I drove up to a gate at the perimeter of the White House grounds, and was cleared through the first of two checkpoints-little white guard houses manned by the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service, recognizable by their standard-issue uniform of black pants, white Oxford shirt with a crest on the left breast pocket, and police officer's hat. On their belts were a holstered gun, handcuffs, a canister of Mace, and a walkie-talkie.
As I got closer and closer to the White House itself, its columns came into high relief. Seen from the street, it's not much different from looking at a photograph, but up close, you begin to sense its innate grandeur.
Once inside, this effect increases exponentially. As a member of the Uniformed Division escorted me in through a side entrance, our shoes clacking along the floor, I felt American history coming alive all around me. The chandeliers hanging overhead in certain rooms, the framed portraits on the walls, and the marble flooring underfoot were so immaculately maintained that in many ways, this place felt more like a museum than a house-and in many ways, it is.
I kept a poker face, but there was no denying it: I was getting excited. I was in the White House to discuss the possibility of coming to work there. I had to fight to keep from grinning like a little kid.
Arriving in a corridor of administrative offices, I was greeted by chief usher Gary Walters and Mrs. Clinton's social secretary, Ann Stock. They led me into a room where we sat down and began talking.
Ann Stock, with her short coiffed blond hair and smart skirt suit, looked very buttoned down, but was surprisingly informal in tone and demeanor. Though clearly an organized and strategic thinker-she kept me focused on a series of topics such as family meals and cooking for large groups-she engaged me in a fun and energizing discussion of my culinary ideas for the White House, my cooking style, and so on. She asked me what I thought made a reception good, and how I'd attack a state dinner. She asked me to describe my style. "I'm classically trained, but I don't execute classically," was my answer, and I went on to explain how I had kept up with contemporary American food, weaving international elements, especially Asian and Mediterranean, into my cooking. She even challenged me a bit by downplaying my Greenbrier experience, indicating that perhaps it was too conservative for what Mrs. Clinton had in mind. The implied question was: "Okay, Mr. Scheib, you're a world-class hotel chef, but can you let your hair down and make food innovative and exciting. Are you ready to go out on a limb?"
Clearly Ann Stock and Mrs. Clinton had spent a lot of time talking about what they wanted from the White House chef. She described to me that one of the Clintons' overarching goals was to have the White House "look like America," reflecting essential aspects of our nation, especially its diversity. Special events and the food served at them, she explained, were one way to accomplish this, with menus influenced by the cultures of the world. She also explained that the Clintons had huge ambitions, and wanted to host state dinners and other functions bigger and more audaciously ambitious than anything that had been attempted there.
Gary Walters took a different approach. A fit, trim, all-business professional in his late forties or early fifties, with gray hair and a dark suit, Gary might easily be mistaken for an FBI agent; in fact, I would later learn that he had been a member of the Secret Service Uniformed Division at one time. He talked to me about the business side of the job, the protocols and logistics within which the chef of the White House is expected to operate.
You might say that Gary Walters and Ann Stock represented, respectively, the left (logical) brain and right (creative) brain of the administration. I remember thinking that my background and demeanor were oddly suited to both sides. My hotel experience, while perhaps not as overtly "sexy" as that of a hot, new restaurant chef, was a perfect fit with the wish to do the bigger and grander events described by Ann Stock; and my strict upbringing-my father raised me to address everyone, even peers, as Mr. or Ms., prompting people to frequently mistake me for a military man-made it possible for me to relate to the conformity clearly sought by Gary Walters.
Gary Walters also said something that I've never forgotten: "The money might not be as good as you're used to, but if you get this job, you'll be part of living history."
After about two hours, we all shook hands, and I made the long drive back home.
Was I going to make the first cut? I had absolutely no idea.
HERE WE ARE NOW, ENTERTAIN US
That Friday, Gary Walters called me again.
"We'd like you to come cook for the First Lady and her staff on Tuesday," he said. This is not at all unusual for a chef candidate: to prepare an "audition" menu for his prospective employers.
"What do you want me to make?"
"Whatever you want."
That was a curveball. Whatever I wanted? For the First Lady and her staff? Daunting, to say the least.
"Well, how many people will be there?"
"How many courses?"
"As many as you want."
So they weren't even going to tell me how much food?
I had to laugh. "So you're not going to tell me anything. You're just going to throw me to the wolves?"
"Yeah, basically," he said, then softened. "Look, we don't want to give you any preconceived notions. We want to see what you do."
Fine, I thought. I can do that. I'll cook the stuff I know I do best. "Very good, Mr. Walters. I'll look forward to seeing you on Tuesday."
In the days since my interview, I had looked up some articles about Mrs. Clinton and her quest for a new chef. "We're not going to entertain until we have the chef I want," was her oft-repeated reason for why they hadn't thrown any state dinners in the fifteen months they'd been in the White House. In those same articles, I had identified the kernel of what would become my approach to the audition. Mrs. Clinton wanted to modernize the White House menu, moving away from its traditional French style and toward contemporary American cuisine and service, thereby making the White House a showcase for what our farmers and other culinary purveyors were creating, and also for the style being forged by modern American chefs who wove indigenous American ingredients and international elements and styles together into an exciting, ever-changing cuisine that defied easy description-and was garnering a great deal of attention from coast to coast and around the world.
I spent the weekend holed up in the kitchen at the Greenbrier with some of my best cooks, working on a few "new menus"-the reason for which, of course, I couldn't fully explain to them. I built the menus around the best seasonal foods of the moment such as morel mushrooms, which were just becoming available, young spring lettuces, and ramps (wild leeks), which were growing everywhere in West Virginia. Because the waters were still ice cold, we were still in peak lobster season, so those went on as well. And I made room for elements that, in my research, I had discovered Mrs. Clinton enjoyed. For example, having read that she liked spicy food, I added a mousse-line of curried sweet potatoes. To meet the expectation of modernity, I also included some international flourishes such as the sauce for the lobster, which featured ginger, scallions, and cilantro.
In all, we prepped three menus of three courses each. My thought was this: If there were ten people at the table, I'd serve alternating menus to each person, so no matter where you were seated, you'd have one dish before you and be able to see the other two dishes simply by glancing to your immediate left and right, and maybe taste them if someone was willing to share.
Moreover, the three menus I had designed each comprised dishes that could be produced on a large scale for special functions, such as the much-anticipated state dinners. I didn't know if I'd have a chance to address the First Lady directly during my audition, but if I did my mission was clear: convey to her that this wasn't just a lunch; it was a preview of what she could look forward to serving visiting heads of state, foreign dignitaries, and others guests of honor.
On Monday, the guys helped me pack the sauces, vinaigrettes, and prepared vegetables into half-quart and one-quart containers. They must have known by this time that the food wasn't meant for the hotel, but they were kind enough not to ask me any awkward questions. Thanks to them, the only actual cooking I'd have to do at the White House would be the preparation of more delicate items such as leafy greens, and of course the poaching, searing, and roasting of any fish and meat.
That night, sitting in bed on the eve of my Big Day, Jean reminded me of something I had long forgotten. Years earlier, she had asked me what my professional dreams were. I had replied that one was to become an executive chef within five years; another was to apprentice at the Greenbrier; and the third was to be the chef of the White House.
I had to laugh. The third ambition had been such a pipe dream-the outlandish utterance of a young cook, shared as mere fantasy at the time-that I had long forgotten even saying it. But now here I was, with that once-ridiculous goal in my sights, and Jean's message was clear: having combined and attained the first two goals, why not expect that the loftiest of the three was truly possible?
I must say, the whole thing was beginning to have an air of destiny about it-in many ways, I felt my mother's presence, convinced she was looking down on me. It was, after all, on the trip home from her funeral that this had all begun.