Correction to This Article
An Aug. 22 Style article on the new White House executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, omitted Hans Raffert from the list of former executive chefs. Raffert served during the administration of George H.W. Bush.

Hail to the Chef

New White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford is the first woman to serve in the job.
New White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford is the first woman to serve in the job. (By Tina Hager -- The White House Via Associated Press)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2005

She's come a long, long, long way, this former hotel "salad girl." Before she was hired as an assistant chef in the White House in 1995, before first lady Laura Bush promoted her to White House executive chef last week, Cristeta Comerford -- "Cris" to her neighbors and co-workers here in the Washington area, "Teta" to her large but tight-knit Filipino family in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove -- was in charge of a salad bar.

"That's what I called her, 'salad girl.' She prepared Caesar salad, Cobb salad," says Juanito Pasia, Cristeta's older brother, trying not to laugh. It was Juanito who drove Teta -- then 23, newly arrived from the Philippines -- in his blue Ford van to and from work at a Sheraton Hotel near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. "Can you believe it?" he asks, giving another hearty laugh. "Can you believe this is happening?"

Ask the people who have worked alongside the 42-year-old Comerford around the world, whether in Chicago, Vienna or Washington, and the answer seems to be a definitive yes. Her new position as the White House's top toque -- a uniquely high-profile and sought-after celebrity chef job -- is an affirmation, her former bosses and co-workers say, of the hard work, focus, imperturbable demeanor and culinary talent she has shown in the kitchen.

"Over and over and over again," says Walter Scheib III, who as the former executive chef -- hired by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1994, then asked to resign by Laura Bush earlier this year -- lured Comerford to join the White House kitchen staff in 1995. In the subsequent years, he adds, he considered her not so much his assistant chef as his "co-chef." "She's an all-around great chef, no question about it. Let me put it to you this way: In the years that I've worked with her, there's been so many dishes she's made for me, and I cannot think of anything she did that wasn't good."

Comerford, who lives in a two-story Colonial-style home in Columbia with her husband, John, and their 4-year-old daughter, Danielle, declined to be interviewed for this article. The White House is planning a "press event" in the first week of September to accommodate the hundreds of requests -- "more than 500 so far and counting," says an overwhelmed Susan Whitson, Laura Bush's press secretary -- to interview Comerford (who, the very moment she made headlines, left for an already-planned weeklong family vacation to Cancun, Mexico).

"White House taps 1st woman, minority as head chef," read a headline in USA Today.

"Her résumé reads like a classic American success story," read an editorial in the Chicago Tribune.

The popular comedic news program "The Daily Show" weighed in, with faux senior presidential correspondent Stephen Colbert reporting that Comerford faces a tough confirmation battle (she doesn't, of course) because she once deemed curried yams "too ethnic" (dubious, but funny).

* * *

Cristeta Comerford is the second youngest of 11 children, with six half brothers, one half sister and three full sisters. Everyone was everyone else's babysitter.

Born in October 1962 in Manila, she was raised in a working-class neighborhood of Sampaloc, near the sprawling campus of the University of Santo Tomas, a Catholic school founded in 1611. Honesto Pasia, her father, was an elementary school principal; Erlinda Pasia, her mother, was a dressmaker. "So driven," says Cristeta's older sister, Ofelia Aguila, a design director for the College of American Pathologists. "So ambitious."

Erlinda, who's 78 and lives with Ofelia and her family in Morton Grove, a 20-minute drive from downtown Chicago, has only one word to describe her Teta: " Napakabait. " That means "very kind" in Tagalog, the dominant native language in the Philippines.

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