Obamas Order From Bush Menu
Incumbent Cook Chosen Instead of a Celebrity Chef
Saturday, January 10, 2009; Page C01
Within a week of Barack Obama's election, speculation swirled in the food community about whom he and Michelle might pick as a new White House chef. How about Rick Bayless, chef at Obama favorites Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in Chicago? Or perhaps Art Smith, who has the Chicago connection, too -- and also used to cook for Oprah? Food luminaries such as Chez Panisse's Alice Waters made it known they would like whoever was selected to transform the job from low-profile banquet chef into a high-profile food ambassador.
The problem with such talk was this: The White House chef doesn't usually change with administrations. And sure enough, Mrs. Obama announced yesterday that the family would keep on Cristeta Comerford, who became the first woman to hold the position when Laura Bush hired her in 2005.
"Cristeta Comerford brings such incredible talent to the White House operation and came very highly regarded from the Bush family," the incoming first lady said in a statement. "Also the mom of a young daughter, I appreciated our shared perspective on the importance of healthy eating and healthy families. I look forward to working with her in the years to come."
The decision was anticlimactic, if not disappointing, for some food lovers who had cast Barack Obama as the next American food hero. While George W. Bush is renowned for his love of cheeseburgers, Obama understands the pain of high-priced arugula at Whole Foods. He not only favored Bayless's restaurants, but he also was a regular at upscale Spiaggia and South Side institution Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, famous for its corn cakes. Here was a man who could bring organic and sustainable food to the political table.
But no one is expressing dismay, at least not publicly. Waters, who had offered herself up as head of a "kitchen cabinet" to help vet potential chef candidates, said it was a "great relief" that the Obamas didn't choose a celebrity. "I think that overshadows the idea that good food is a right, not a privilege," she said. "I want someone there who cares deeply about this and understands the importance of real food."
Nina Zagat, who with her husband, Tim, publishes the Zagat restaurant guides, had called for a "culinary impresario" at the helm of the White House kitchen. But in an interview, she said: "It's wonderful that they're keeping her on. The important thing is to be using the White House as a place to showcase American food, American chefs and American culture and holidays. I assume that working with the White House communications staff, she will be in a position to support a lot of these issues."
That will be less up to Comerford than the Obamas. The chef at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. serves at the pleasure of the president, former White House staffers say. "All those things that people want are important," says Walter Scheib, who was chef for the Clintons and the Bushes between 1994 and 2005 until being fired by Mrs. Bush. "There is only one thing that is important, which is what Mrs. Obama wants done for her family, in her home."
In Scheib's view, the White House chef needs three qualifications: to be a "pretty good" cook, to be without a strong ego and to be discreet. "In the world of celebrity chefs," he added, "that's a difficult combination to find."
Comerford, by all accounts, meets all three qualifications. The 46-year-old chef learned to turn Bush favorites such as sweet potato with marshmallows into sweet potato soufflés for holiday buffets. In her 13 years at the White House (she became an assistant chef in 1995), she has learned to manage the rigors and whims of the first family and their guests; at Christmas, there are more than two dozen events, which means serving nearly 10,000 people.
Perhaps most important to the no-drama Obamas, Comerford did not return our repeated calls for comment.
Staff writer DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.