Many parents are familiar with the trick of sneaking vegetables and other healthy stuff into their kids’ food. Turns out, White House chefs were doing something similar for notorious junk-food lover Bill Clinton when they were whipping up his grub.
We were intrigued by a recent Facebook post by Marty Mongiello, the former executive chef at Camp David. He had posted on the wall of Dean Ornish, the famed diet guru who worked with White House chefs during the Clinton administration to health-ify their traditionally buttery, calorie-laden French fare. In the post, he described the subterfuge involved in making the president’s meals: “I figured it best not to tell him about it. I still have never fully told him the truth,” he wrote. And he hinted at being “called on the carpet” by Hillary Clinton.
Ooh, dishy! We contacted him to get the full story. According to Mongiello, he was cooking for the Clintons at Camp David after the edict had come down to lighten up the menus. Word from the waiters serving the dinner was that the then-first lady was unhappy with the meal’s entree, a luscious fettuccine alfredo.
“‘She wants to see you out there,” Mongiello recalls a waiter telling him. “Dude, you’re gonna get fired.’” Confident but still worried, he appeared in the dining room, where Hillary asked him why he was serving such a high-fat dish when such things were now taboo. “She said ‘Look, there’s cream, there’s cheese — these things are illegal.’ And I just explained how I made it.”
Which was with low-fat alternatives that were so convincing the Clintons had mistaken them for their caloric cousins. Instead of cream, he used pureed rice. A nut or rice-milk cheese stood in for the usual Parmesan. All on the A-Okay list. “Her reaction was ‘Wow, I can’t believe it. We thought those were a thing of the past.’ She wasn’t mad or anything, she was just really concerned about her husband’s health.”
So he wasn’t fired for trying to pull the wool over the first couple’s eyes — or at least their tastebuds. He went on to cook plenty of lighter fare for the family, including, he remembers, a cheesecake that sneaks in tofu and lighter-fat ingredients.
The recipe came to him one weekend after he had faxed a weekend’s worth of menus to head White House chef Walter Scheib. The boss sent him a 20-page message in return. There was a new direction, he said. The first lady had just appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and had become acquainted with the work of her chef, Rosie Daley, and wanted the White House chefs to incorporate some of the O’s favorite recipes.
The secretly-slimmed down cheesecake, he said, was a favorite. It had fooled a president. This, we thought, we have to taste. So Mongiello shared the recipe (see below) and wished us well.
So, to the kitchen we went! The concoction is pretty simple to make — dump a few ingredients in the food processor, whiz them up, and bake. It skips the buttery crust and swaps lighter versions of the usual ingredients (egg whites instead of whole eggs, low-fat cream cheese for full-fat).
The results? We brought the finished product into the newsroom and the reviews were a solid “not bad.”
Good enough, apparently, to satisfy the president’s sweet tooth. Of course, Bill Clinton is eating vegan these days, so he’s not eating even the lightened-up version.
But even then, Mongiello took the healthy-eating edict seriously. “I wasn’t going to do anything to contribute to the death of a president.”
Chocolate Tofu Cheesecake (adapted from Rosie Daly’s “In the Kitchen with Rosie.”)
8 oz. firm tofu
1/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
4 oz. light cream cheese
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 large egg whites
3 tablespoons light Irish cream liquor (optional)
1 tablespoon coffee liquor (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, process all the ingredients until smooth. Spritz a 10-inch pie pan with three sprays of vegetable oil and pour the mixture in. Bake for an hour on the middle rack (a baking pan half-filled with boiling water on the lower rack will keep the surface of the cake from cracking). Remove from the oven and spread with the topping:
1/2 cup nonfat sour cream or yogurt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon honey
Bake for another 10 minutes to allow topping to set. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving.