White House Begins Search For a New Chef

By Roxanne Roberts

Ladies and gentlemen, start your Cuisinarts. The search for the new White House executive chef is officially on.

"The process will move as quickly as possible," said Gordon Johndroe, press secretary to Laura Bush. "But obviously, it's a certain type of chef that the residence's staff will be looking for. It's a unique position."

Walter Scheib, preparing for a White House dinner in 1994, will stay on until a new chef is found. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

Walter Scheib, who the White House said this week was resigning, will remain until a replacement is named, Johndroe said yesterday. The job is one of the most demanding in the White House; in addition to planning and executing formal state dinners, the executive chef is responsible for feeding and pleasing the first family and their guests around the clock.

"It's one of the most prestigious jobs in the world," said former White House social secretary Ann Stock. "It helps the president and first lady set their sense of style. My phone has been ringing today from chefs around the United States wanting to know how they could put their hat in the ring. It's highly, highly sought after."

Chief Usher Gary Walters will lead the search, Johndroe said. Walters, who was involved in the selection of Thaddeus DuBois as the new White House pastry chef last year, declined to comment for this story. The first lady historically makes the final choice of White House chef.

Laura Bush has already indicated that she and the president intend to host more official events during their second term. "September 11th affected every aspect of life at the White House, including social life," said Johndroe. "A number of plans the Bushes had for entertaining had to be put on hold."

This is the first time in 11 years that the White House will hire a new executive chef. There have been only five since Jackie Kennedy made everything in the White House -- including White House menus -- all the rage.

Traditionally, White House chefs prepared classic French cuisine for official events. French chef Rene Verdon served during the Kennedy administration. In 1966, Lady Bird Johnson replaced Verdon with Swiss chef Henry Haller, who held the position for 22 years and cooked for five presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. American Jon Hill followed Haller in 1987, but lost the job just a few months later. Barbara Bush hired French chef Pierre Chambrin.

After Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, American chefs lobbied for an American in the position -- or at least someone who embraced the best of American cuisine. Scheib, originally from Bethesda, was recruited in 1994 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, winning the position over a reported 4,000 applicants. Walters and Stock helped narrow the field to five finalists, who were interviewed and created sample tasting menus for the first lady and her staff.

"It was a very thorough, thoughtful process," said Stock. "It took a couple months. The final piece was having each chef prepare a luncheon for six people. It was also a very creative process -- you got a sense of what was going on in the culinary world."

Scheib, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was executive chef at Greenbrier resort in West Virginia when he was hired by the Clintons. He was selected for his emphasis on American dishes, using the freshest ingredients available and featuring ethnic flavors and cooking styles. He encouraged the White House to switch from French to American service, which allowed the chefs to create the plate's presentation. He also served as president of a very exclusive organization: Le Club des Chefs de Chefs, a group of personal cooks to the world's heads of state.

Scheib partnered with Roland Mesnier, who served as White House pastry chef for 25 years until he retired last July. To work as a chef at the White House, Mesnier said last year, "you have to be totally dedicated to the profession, the job and the first family.

"You don't think about free time, spare time, etc., because your time is at the White House. Any time you are needed you have to be there. It could be Christmas Day, Easter, your birthday, your mother's birthday, your child's birthday -- you are going to be at the White House if you are needed. The White House always comes first."

The White House kitchen is typically open 16 hours a day, preparing meals for the president and his family, small luncheons and dinners, buffets for large receptions and the highly scrutinized State Dinners, with menus designed to highlight both American cuisine and the country being honored. Planning for state dinners begin two months before the event. And let us not forget the thousands of hard-boiled eggs for the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Johndroe said he could not put a timetable on the search process, although the selection of the pastry chef took about two months. Scheib did not return calls for comment. The executive chef oversees a staff of five full-time and up to 20 part-time chefs. Johndroe said he was not aware of any other personnel shifts in the White House kitchen or other offices in the East Wing.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company