Obviously the White House — any administration’s White House — is a pretty chaotic place. Working there as a chef is an incredibly prestigious job, but it’s far from easy. The cooks must work to the highest possible standard and also follow a whole bunch of rules necessary to preserve the history and security of the building. Here’s what it’s like when you’re one of those responsible for the President’s food.
20. You’re always on call
Just like an emergency room worker, a good White House chef must be available at pretty much every hour of the day. In February 2020 a former White House pastry chef named Bill Yosses spoke to the HuffPost website about that oft-overlooked aspect of the job. “In theory, we were working 24/7,” he said.
Yosses, who worked in the White House from 2006 to 2014, explained the reason for this, saying, “There could be a national emergency and the people involved have to get up at 3 a.m. and handle a crisis. The crises happened, but they weren’t hungry.” That’s perhaps not surprising. But the chefs must always be on hand for when they are.
19. There’s several kitchens, be in the right one
The White House is massive. It has 132 rooms, and three different kitchens. There’s the main one, a pastry one, and one where the First Family can make their own food. Both are fairly new additions — the Clintons created the family kitchen and the pastry room was split off from the main kitchen in 1993.
18. Strange food might be on the menu
Presidents can order pretty much whatever food they want, even if it’s weird. For example, Richard Nixon felt he should eat cottage cheese for health reasons, but he didn’t like the taste, so he had it slathered in ketchup. George Bush liked something even more unhealthy — cheeseburger pizza. That’s exactly what it sounds like: a burger and cheese on top of a pizza base.
And according to the 2007 book All the Presidents’ Pastries, a memoir by former chef Roland Mesnier, Bill Clinton enjoyed an “atrocious concoction of Coca-Cola-flavored jelly served with black glacé cherries.” Of course, this is nothing compared to what the presidents of the olden times liked to eat. James Garfield enjoyed squirrel stew, which would have been normal back then but pretty weird now.
17. Chefs answer to the First Lady
It’s the First Lady, not the President, who hires the executive chef of the White House. That means that they can also fire them at will, however. In 2005 then-First Lady Laura Bush fired her head chef, Walter Scheib, after he’d worked for 11 years in the White House. It made headlines.
First Ladies also get to make the rules about their husbands’ eating habits. In October 2019, former pastry chef Roland Mesnier told ABC7 reporter Victoria Sanchez, “President Reagan loved chocolate but Mrs. Reagan told me never to give him chocolate.” He sometimes snuck it to the president anyway.
16. It’s handy to be ex-military
In 2020 HuffPost interviewed a few of the former White House kitchen staff. “The military chefs are often Navy/Coast Guard, but there’s also a few from the Army and Air Force,” Bill Yosses said. “They’re very much unsung heroes in America.” Generally, most people in the kitchen will either be former restaurant chefs or ex-military.
One ex-military guy is Andre Rush, whose photo went viral after he was spotted flashing his massive biceps while grilling meat. “Chef Rush has become a little meme now. It’s hilarious. I get a kick out of them,” the man himself told Food and Wine magazine in 2019. His nickname in the kitchens? Tiny, of course.
15. State dinners must go smoothly
A state dinner at the White House is a very, very important affair. This is when another head of state visits America and a grand meal is put on in their honor. If anything goes wrong it could be a diplomatic disaster, so needless to say the staff in the kitchen are put under a lot of stress.
The First Lady selects a meal which consists of at least five courses, and it’s up to the chefs to cook it to perfection. Apparently, they’re under a strict time limit throughout the whole event. No more than 55 minutes can elapse between the first and last course being served. “The dinners are a lot of pressure — we can have 10 people doing one little course,” Rush told HuffPost in 2020.
14. Don’t expect overtime pay
Despite all the long hours and stressful functions, the executive chef at the White House isn’t actually paid all that much. Sure, you get the prestige, but you don’t get overtime pay. In August 2005, after Laura Bush fired Walter Scheib, The New York Times reported that she was having difficulty replacing him because of the salary.
But the position was filled in August 2005 by Cristeta Comerford, the first ever woman to hold the job of executive chef. Even so, while reporting on her appointment, the New York Times pointed out “The pay, $80,000 to $100,000 a year with no overtime, for what is essentially a private family chef who occasionally has an opportunity to show off at a state dinner, is well below what top level chefs can earn on the outside.”
13. Yes, you can make beer
In 2011 Barack Obama became the first ever sitting President to make beer at the White House, brews that he would then hand out to people while on the campaign trail. Hi partner in this presidential micro-brewery was Sam Kass, one-time White House chef and senior adviser for nutrition policy. Kass gave an interview about it to Smithsonian magazine in 2017.
Kass said, “There’s been a transformation in beer culture over the last 15 years. Not only are there thousands of small breweries popping up all over the country, but people are brewing beer in their basements all over the place, and I just thought it would be great to join in that sort of great American tradition — or a budding tradition anyway — and brew some of our own beer.”
And the former chef went on, “We had no idea what we were doing. But you just give it a shot. And if you have cooking experience and kitchen experience and you know how to kind of follow a recipe, which we did…as long as you are careful, it’s not that complicated. So yeah, no, it turned out great.”
12. Presidents can order anything via a button
Those who have seen inside the Oval Office will have noticed a little red button on the main desk. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t launch a nuclear attack. Luckily, there are a few rather more complex steps to go through before that ever happens. It’s for the much more pleasant task of summoning food and drink.
We know what Obama used the button for thanks to billionaire Richard Branson. In his 2017 book Losing My Virginity he recalled meeting the President, “I noticed the red buttons on his desk. Obama saw me looking at them. He said, ‘They used to be there for emergencies, but now I use them for ordering tea for my guests.’”
11. You need to make a gingerbread house
Ever since 1972, it’s been tradition for the White House chefs to create a gingerbread house for Christmas. Pastry chef Susan Morrison spoke about this to O, The Oprah Magazine in December 2016. “I spend all year thinking about the White House gingerbread house, but we don’t begin baking until November,” she said.
Morrison went on, “Then, for about four days after Thanksgiving, we work tirelessly to build the house before moving it to the State Dining Room, where more than 60,000 guests will cycle through. And it has to look as perfect as it did on day one — which means it can’t melt, it can’t be affected by humidity, and it can’t be touched!”
10. There are things the staff can’t comment on
Before Cristeta Comerford became executive chef she was the White House assistant chef, but she wasn’t allowed to talk to the media about her potential promotion. In 2005, as her name came under consideration, The New York Times attempted to get a quote from her. But she refused, telling them, “You know the rules of the house.”
9. You need to have security clearance
Obviously, it’s pretty vital that the White House chefs are subject to security checks. Walter Scheib explained it all to Vice magazine in 2015. “The clearance that you have when you’re working in the White House is called Top Secret Presidential Proximity,” he said. “The ‘presidential proximity’ part means that you can be in close physical contact with the President and the First Family with no Secret Service around you.”
Scheib went on, “In terms of the few of us that are in the kitchen who have that clearance, if you think about it, we’re not just around outside and next to the President; we’re physically inside of him. You really couldn’t get any more close to that. In a way, you may be one of the singularly most trusted people in the whole country.”
8. You need to work hard on January 20
January 20 is always the day when the current President moves out and the new one moves in. It’s an incredibly chaotic time for the White House staff. Until noon, they serve the prior President, then it all changes. They have a mere six hours to clean out the kitchen and rearrange it according to what the new First Family wants.
7. The President can refuse certain foods
President George H.W. Bush famously hated one vegetable. “’I do not like broccoli,” he announced to the U.S. News and World Report newspaper in March 1990. “And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”
So no-one was to serve Bush broccoli either in the White House or on Air Force One. And that wasn’t even all he refused. In a 2011 C-SPAN show called Conversation with White House Chefs former staff member Pierre Chambrin remembered, “I served [Bush] some Brussels sprouts. And he told the butler, ‘Tell Pierre never to serve that to me again.’”
6. It’s difficult to get a White House chef job
The White House don’t advertise for jobs in the traditional way. If you want to work as a chef in the White House kitchen, you’d better know someone on the inside. In some cases White House employees have passed their skills down to their own children who then take up the job themselves.
For example Henry Haller, the executive chef at the White House from 1966 to 1987, was hand-picked by President Lyndon B. Johnson himself. In 2015 his wife Carol remembered to the AUI Fine Foods website, “There was a security clearance after he was hired. We saw guys in black suits walking around the neighborhood asking questions about us.”
And chef Susan Morrison also didn’t actually apply for her job. In 2016 she told O, The Oprah Magazine, “In 1995, I was working at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, in McLean, Virginia, when I was called in to meet with the White House’s then executive pastry chef. He was looking for a contractor but refused to learn about candidates from their résumé. He put me to work for two days.” She succeeded and rose up the ranks.
5. Chefs must consider religious and cultural requirements
Martin Mongiello was a White House executive chef for almost 30 years, and in May 2019 he spoke to the radio news magazine show WGLT’s Sound Ideas about what happened when dignitaries from aboard arrived to see the President. He said in those cases the menu would be “half American food and half from the visiting country.”
Mongiello went on, “You have to be able to control your minds and your hands; you’re cooking for Muslim special requests, you have kosher meals that need to be served that night. You may have any different number of a dozen different kinds of diets. It’s a bit challenging in that regard but there certainly isn’t any room for attitude.”
4. Easter eggs are very important
One of the most entertaining events in the White House social calendar is the Easter Egg Roll. Kids are invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and they can take part in various activities, including a race where they push Easter eggs along with spoons. Who’s responsible for making all those eggs? The kitchen staff of course.
The chefs of the White House kitchen have to boil and dye at least 14,000 eggs for the day. By hand! It’s hard work — but at least it keeps the children happy. It’s considered a very exciting occasion for the people who get to go, and lotteries to get tickets only stay open for three days, so high is the demand.
3. All food is screened, but not tasted
Former White House chef Walter Scheib has had plenty to say about the safety of White House food over the years. In 2013, not long after a rumor arose about President Obama having a person taste his food for him, Stein firmly told Washingtonian magazine, “There is no presidential food taster.”
Scheib went on, “Nothing gets to the President that hasn’t fallen under somebody’s jurisdiction. If the President is just grabbing a pretzel randomly at the table, it’s been screened.” To the best of his knowledge, foreign dignitaries also didn’t employ food tasters, Scheib said, because the White House was a “secure facility.”
A few years later in 2015 Schieb talked about the same issue to Vice magazine. He said, “There are no tasters. The idea of a taster is a very medieval one. If you wanted to poison someone these days, it could take up to a couple of weeks to even have an effect.” He dismissed the whole idea as being “absurd.”
2. Rules don’t always apply
During the Prohibition era of America, no alcohol was allowed. Unless, of course, you happened to be the President. The 29th leader of the United States, Warren G. Harding, actually voted in favor of Prohibition. But that didn’t stop him himself from throwing booze-fueled wild parties in the White House.
The White House staff who were around at the time witnessed Harding happily drinking down alcohol at a time when no-one else could. But there probably wasn’t a lot they could say about it. There was a loophole in the law, anyway — it wasn’t illegal to drink alcohol, just to make or transport it.
1. The First Family pays for the food
Obviously a lot of food goes through the White House kitchens, but it’s the President and his family who pay for it. Ever since the 19th century and President John Adams, the occupants of the White House must buy their own food. It’s only for official government functions that the taxpayer has to contribute.
Michelle Obama spoke about this while on Jimmy Kimmel Live in November 2018. She joked that while the White House staff would happily bring her whatever exotic fruit she requested, they didn’t mention the price. “Then you get the bill for a peach and you’re like, ‘That was a $500 peach!’” she laughed.