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Notes from a White House Kitchen

What did the president eat and when did he eat it?

3:34 PM, Mar 5, 2014 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Yet another damning revelation about the Clintons: Daughter Chelsea preferred imitation maple syrup over the real thing. In Dining at the White House, former presidential chef John Moeller recalls his urging another cook to give the first daughter what she wants, even if it seems just plain wrong.

As Tim Carman recently wrote in the Washington Post,

Moeller likes to share an anecdote to explain why a White House chef needs to be ego-free. The Clintons, Moeller remembers, had just hired a new cook, and he was eager to impress. Chelsea Clinton wanted pancakes for breakfast. The newbie noticed real maple syrup in the refrigerator and was about to grab it. Moeller told him to forget it: Chelsea liked the imitation bottled syrup.

“And he fought me about it,” Moeller recalls. “I said, ‘Okay, fine. Put it up there.’ It went up, and it came back two minutes later. . . . I said, ‘You know and I know [real maple syrup] might be the better-quality thing. That is maybe something we do on the outside for people, but we’re in a home. This is what she wants. We’re going to give them what they want.’ ”

Moeller also knew not to serve the first President Bush broccoli, though the chef did push the envelope. As Carman notes,

Moeller also knew that the elder Bush was a well-traveled man who knew a lot about cuisine. So one evening, Moeller decided to take a risk. He prepared the president an Asian-flavored meal: miso soup, California rolls, salmon teriyaki and other dishes. He even had White House carpenters build geta serving boards for a Japanese-style presentation.

“Afterwards, the president came back, and he shook my hand,” Moeller remembers. “He goes, ‘John, in the four years that I’ve been here, I’ve never had a meal like that. Thanks a lot. That was fun.’”

Perhaps most important, Chef Moeller finally solves the mystery of what kind of pretzel was temporarily lodged in George W. Bush's throat. It came from the Hammond Pretzel Bakery in Lancaster, Pa. When the incident occurred in early 2002, I speculated on the possibility it was a Rold Gold. (The folks at Snyder's reassured me it was not one of theirs.)

We also tend to forget that having an American White House chef is a fairly recent development: "Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant and earth mother of the U.S. locavore movement, sent a letter to president-elect Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, urging them to install an American chef," writes Carman. "The letter was signed by dozens of top chefs, including Wolfgang Puck, who was born in Austria." French chef Pierre Chambrin was then replaced by American Walter Scheib, under whom Moeller worked. And Moeller himself was replaced in 2005 by his colleague Cristeta Comerford. The outgoing chef, according to Carman, "has no hard feelings about being passed over, though he does wonder whether the White House was under pressure to hire a woman by groups such as Les Dames d’Escoffier."

Speaking of the French, I was reminded of Jacques Pépin, who was asked to cook for the Kennedy White House—he turned it down for a corporate chef's position at Howard Johnson. The reason? Been there, done that. Pépin had cooked for five French prime ministers (including de Gaulle) during the heady days of the Fourth Republic. Amid the chaos, he ended up cooking more for Prime Minister Gaillard's cabinet director, M. Aicardi, than for his boss. And Aicardi took full advantage of the First Chef.

In Pépin's memoir, The Apprentice, the author recalls,

Occasionally, M. Aicardi sent for the [cookbooks] and me. He peered in silence at the color plates with great concentration before pointing to a dish—often one that was unusual, expensive, and elaborate—and saying, "This one!"

That is how I ended up preparing a capon Régence, which is stuffed with a mousseline of crawfish and garnished with small shells of puff pastry filled with whole cooked truffles and foie gras.

Needless to say, M. Aicardi eventually fell victim to gout.

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