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. (Published 8/27/05)
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 resume 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.
"Tuwang tuwa ang boong pamilia para sa kanya," says Erlinda. ("The family is very, very happy for her.")
"I could feel within my heart that joy that is kind of just overflowing," says Ofelia, recalling Teta's phone call telling her about the promotion. "Then I thought of my dad. Oh, if he were still alive!" Honesto died more than 10 years ago, before Teta started working in the White House. "He would have been very, very excited over this."
The Pasia daughters grew up in a house of food, with Erlinda as the perfectionist, hard-to-please head chef. "It's either overcooked or too salty, she would say. Too little this and too much that," says Ofelia. It was rare for the family to eat out.
Filipino cuisine is determinedly eclectic, a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Spanish influence. Erlinda can whip out a classic chicken adobo, a kind of stew, or pancit canton, a kind of noodle dish, or lumpia Shanghai, the Filipino egg roll, all staples of any Filipino party, not so much "by formula," says Ofelia, but "by instinct." The mother passed that gift on to her daughters.
Encouraged by her family, Comerford studied food. She attended the University of the Philippines-Diliman, in Quezon City, and majored in food technology. Contrary to a news release issued by the White House, though, she didn't complete her degree. Juanito, an accountant and the first in the family to move to the States, had petitioned his parents, brothers and sisters to let her join him there, and Comerford opted to leave school when her visa was approved.
After stints at the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency hotels near Chicago O'Hare, Cristeta, with her husband, who's also a chef, moved here. She was a chef at two Washington restaurants -- Le Grande Bistro at the Westin Hotel and the Colonnade at the former ANA Hotel. For six months, she worked as chef tournant ("revolving chef") at Le Ciel, in Vienna, Austria, sharpening her mastery of French classical techniques. Scheib, then the executive chef at the White House, recruited her.
"As a chef, you need a certain feeling, a certain way of putting food together, not just cooking it but presenting it. It's hard to describe, but she has that feeling," says Siegfried Pucher, her former boss at Le Ciel.
In her 10 years at the White House, however, her specialty has been ethnic and American cuisine. What pleased the first lady is the way Comerford can more than satisfy the president with a lunch of enchilada or cheeseburger, then turn around to cook a state dinner that pairs chilled asparagus soup and lemon cream with pan-roasted halibut and basmati rice (with pistachio nuts and currants). In fact, the dinner for 134 guests held last month in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won Comerford the job.
"For those back home in the Philippines, and for the Filipinos who are working immigrants and naturalized citizens all over the world -- and there are millions of us -- she is this wonderful, wonderful example," says Greg Macabenta, a columnist for the Manila Times who lives in California.
The Filipino population in the United States, according to Census Bureau figures, hovers around 2.4 million, with almost half residing in California. The New Jersey/New York area, as well as Hawaii, have substantial Filipino populations, followed by the Chicago and Washington metropolitan areas.
"She's one of our own, she's doing very well, and we share in the pride," Macabenta says. "We want to tell our children, 'Hey look, don't believe that canard about the glass ceiling in the United States. You can be as good as the best of them in the world.' "
The White House kitchen, located in the East Wing, is in a way the heart of the executive residence, with a style reflective of the administration it serves. Eleanor Roosevelt offered the king and queen of England hot dogs. Lyndon Johnson loved his barbecue (Texas style, naturally). The Carters favored southern food, grits and country ham. Nancy Reagan, a stickler for detail, had "tryout menus" of classic French cuisine for state dinners and had Polaroids taken of how the food should be presented. And though Hillary Clinton favored contemporary low-fat menus, Bill was famous for his not-too-rare Big Mac cravings.
In the 44 years since the title "executive chef" was introduced to the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy, only five people have held the post before Comerford: Rene Verdon, Henry Haller, Jon Hill, Pierre Chambrin and Scheib.
"Cris will surely bring her own flair to this job. But the pressure is different now that she's the boss," says Roland Mesnier, who was White House pastry chef for 25 years -- he retired in July 2004 -- and worked with Comerford for nine years. He still remembers that Chilean sea bass she asked him to taste, and goes on and on about how the fish "was so very flaky and white and just extraordinary." "Hers is a job that is extremely demanding, and she'll have to be focused at all times, which I'm confident she'll be. In my experience with her, she doesn't do one day better than another day. The minute she steps in that kitchen, the second she's in there, Cris is focused."
She'll be paid somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000 annually, with no overtime, and will be in charge of five full-time employees, though that number can rise to 25 for large parties, state dinners and, of course, the White House Easter Egg Roll. She's an early riser, which helps -- you never know just when President Bush, usually up at around 5:15 a.m., will want his breakfast.
So what will the White House kitchen run by Comerford look like, feel like, taste like?
Only Comerford knows.
The Comerfords returned from their vacation late Thursday night. The next morning, the new executive chef was back at work.