Former White House Chef On Oval Office Tastes
GUY RAZ, host:
Excuse me, President Carter, could you please pass the potatoes? Thanks. And can you reach over President Bush's arm and hand me the salt? Oh, great. OK, so clearly I'm living in a fantasy world. But all three living former presidents plus the current one and the soon-to-be-inaugurated one will actually sit down for lunch on Wednesday at the White House. The menu for now is a state secret. The administration isn't talking. So we've asked former White House chef, Walter Scheib, to imagine what he'd serve these five men. Chef Scheib, thanks for joining us.
Mr. WALTER SCHEIB (Former White House Chef): Great to be here.
RAZ: So you cooked for both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, and they like some of the same things - beef, ribs, barbecue - well, maybe President Clinton isn't so discerning.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: But seriously, how do you figure out how to put together a menu for five men who might all have different tastes?
Mr. SCHEIB: Well, I think the key word there is men. You know, there isn't blue state food and red state food, you know. Food at the White House has a tendency to delineate along gender lines as opposed to political lines. Both First Ladies that I worked with were very discerning palates, very adventuresome, always trying new and different things, very much into nutritional and organics. And both presidents that I worked with, I think, if we'd open up a rib joint, as you said, or a barbecue pit, they would have been just as happy. Kind of dine on a concept if something were good, melt some cheese on it, now we're talking great food.
RAZ: Now you've cooked for most of these men, actually.
Mr. SCHEIB: Yeah.
RAZ: With the exception of President-elect Obama.
Mr. SCHEIB: Right.
RAZ: What would you prepare?
Mr. SCHEIB: I'll tell you, you know, you probably have to get something fairly down to earth. It is going to be a lunch, and it is going to be a get-to-know-you for some of these guys. They know each other fairly well, you know. They're all in the same game, if you will. But I do think that they're going to be more driven by the conversation and the sort of camaraderie at this very exclusive fraternity that they're all in as opposed to what the actual food will be.
It'll probably be something with a southwestern bent. President Bush, being the host, is probably going to be the one who takes a lead in it. So I bet probably my bottom dollar, it's going to be some sort of beef. He loved his beef tenderloin.
RAZ: So take us into the White House for a moment. I understand that all of these presidents have many options about where they can actually dine, right?
Mr. SCHEIB: Right.
RAZ: Where do you think they're going...
Mr. SCHEIB: Well, you know, that's kind of a curious protocol question that you ask, because if it were on the state floor, which is the first floor of the White House, or the ground floor, which is not one of the formal floors, that would denote that it was sort of a political or a policy-driven meeting.
If they're up in the private residence, now, it really is more camaraderie or social interaction. And this is sort of a subtle protocol between the ground floor, the first floor, and then the actual private residence. So, I'd expect they're going to be up in the private residence.
RAZ: Now, of course, President-elect Obama was accused of being an arugula eater during the campaign. Do you think he'd serve an arugula salad?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHEIB: Well, you know, President Bush is funny. He was telling me one day things he didn't care for. He says, I don't like soups, I don't like salads. I don't care for things green, and I don't care for, quote, unquote, "wet fish," which meant anything that wasn't fried or baked. So I would suspect that if there's arugula served, it will be a metaphoric olive branch.
RAZ: Finally, I have to ask. There's been a lot of speculation - and there's always a lot of speculation when a new president comes in - about who the new White House chef is going to be.
Mr. SCHEIB: Ah.
RAZ: Do you have any intel for us?
Mr. SCHEIB: Well, I'll tell you, the woman who's the chef there now and is the first minority chef and the first female chef, much to her credit, is a woman named Cris Comerford. Cris was my assistant for eight years. So obviously, I've got a dog in this fight. I think Cris is a tremendous chef. But that's not the real key to being the chef at the White House. Really, there are three things.
One, first and foremost, you have to be a little bit clairvoyant. You have to know what the first family wants almost before they anticipate. You really need to know them inside out. Secondly, you had to be tremendously discreet and circumspect. You can't talk about anything you do or how you do it. So in an age of celebrity chefs, you had to be the anti-celebrity chef. And thirdly, it doesn't hurt if you can cook a little bit.
I would suspect that for all the political agendas and all the culinary agendas that are being bandied about, about what the Obamas should do with their chef, that Cris has got a leg up on everyone. And secondly, there is only one person then who will make this decision. It isn't Alice Waters or Ruth Reichl. It's Michelle Obama. She'll be the one who makes the decision, not based on any sort of culinary agenda, but on what she perceives to be right for her daughters and her husband in her home.
RAZ: Chef Walter Scheib's memoir about his executive branch cooking is called "White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen." Chef Scheib, thanks for joining us.
Mr. SCHEIB: Great to have been here.
RAZ: Head to npr.org to hear about Chef Scheib's most memorable White House menu. The guest: Nelson Mandela.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.