Toque of the Town: White House Names 1st Female Executive Chef
Monday, August 15, 2005
After first lady Laura Bush fired the White House executive chef in February, a group of female chefs and restaurateurs sent her a letter urging her to do what no other first lady has done -- name a woman to the position.
Yesterday she did just that, selecting Cristeta Comerford, a 10-year veteran of the White House kitchen, as the new executive chef.
The announcement caps a six-month search for a chef who will help Mrs. Bush with the more frequent formal entertaining she plans during her husband's second term.
The White House executive chef presides over a staff of five full-time employees, although that number can expand to as many as 25 for an important occasion.
Bonnie Moore, a former assistant chef at the Inn at Little Washington who is president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, a national group that had urged Mrs. Bush to name a woman, said Comerford's appointment "sends a message around the world. Women make up more than 50 percent of food service workers, but hold less than 4 percent of the top jobs. And this is the top job." Comerford, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen originally from the Philippines, will also be the first representative of a minority group to hold the post of executive chef.
"This is great news," said Evan Garcia, deputy chief of mission at the Philippine Embassy in Washington. "Ms. Comerford obviously has reached the pinnacle of her profession and she does all Filipinos proud. Maybe she can start offering lumpias in the White House." Lumpias are a popular Filipino version of egg rolls, Garcia explained.
Comerford is known for her even-tempered, unflappable demeanor, as well as an extraordinary ability to adapt to any situation, from a late-night peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a state dinner for 900, said her predecessor, Walter Scheib, who hired her in 1995 from what was then the ANA Hotel.
"She is exceptional in taking a concept and turning it into a dish," he said.
The new East Wing emphasis on food and socializing was underscored in January when well-known Washington hostess Lea Berman was hired to succeed Cathy Fenton as White House social secretary. The next month Scheib, who had been hired in 1994 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, was told to pack his whisk and go -- a decision he said reflected Mrs. Bush's desire to have her own person in the kitchen. "For better or worse, I'll always be identified as Mrs. Clinton's chef," he said.
Hundreds of applicants contacted the White House about the job. Although Comerford had been assumed to be on the short list of candidates from the beginning, it was her performance in the past several months, including an official dinner in July for 134 guests in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that helped the first lady make her decision.
"She understands the scale of the job she's undertaking and there's a personal compatibility with Mrs. Bush," said the first lady's press secretary, Susan Whitson, in an interview.
According to Whitson, Comerford was offered -- and accepted -- the job on Friday. She and her family then left for a vacation in Mexico. She could not be reached for comment. In a statement, Mrs. Bush said: "I am delighted that Cris Comerford has accepted the position of White House executive chef. Her passion for cooking can be tasted in every bite of her delicious creations."