SHORTLY AFTER I became secretary, I hired a cook, Wiley Barnes, to take advantage of the kitchen in the HEW headquarters to serve the secretary's dining room, for working breakfasts and lunches with the staff, congressmen and interest groups. Late one evening I signed a 402-word job description for Barnes as a "personal assistant" and the word "cook" or "chef" never appeared.

On March 23, Associated Press reporter Mike Putzel broke a story that the "personal assistant" was a chef. His story never mentioned the fact that all other Cabinet officers have at least one chef, and much more elaborate kitchens and culinary staffs than those at HEW. In the wake of press reports about my $505,000 in legal fees the year before I became secretary (on which I paid $276,000 in income taxes), the chef story was widely covered. Within 48 hours it was on all television networks.

Carter had made a big point of trimming the ostentatious symbols of office and cutting the "imperial presidency" down to human size. He repeadedly expressed his intention to cut down on "frills, pomp and ceremony." At a Cabinet meeting, he had asked us to "reduce the perquisites of yourselves and your employes," and suggested we eat in the employe cafeterias on occasion. Later, he had asked the Cabinet to "travel unostentatiously" and "to cut out automobiles for deputies," as he was eliminating White House cars for senior aides.

I called him and offered to fire the chef if he was embarrassed about it. "Handle it your way. Whatever you do is fine with me," Carter said reassuringly.

I appreciated his confidence and support. I did not want to fire the cook, but I had to put an end to the story. Sen. John Heinz and other congressmen were publicly needling me, asking for invitations to lunch when I testified on Capitol Hill. On March 25, after a meeting with Carter on Welfare reform, Jody Powell urged me to try to put the story to rest with the White House press corps. I went out through the west lobby to a horde of reporters, cameras and microphones.

"What are you going to do about the chef?" ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson mischievously shouted.

"I'm going to rewrite the job description to set forth candidly his duties. But the chef will save time and money over the long haul and I intend to keep him."

I returned to my office, hoping I had put an end to the story. I feared that the combined impact of the chef and the high legal income would make it impossible for me to lead HEW and effectively plead the case for the poor. At the depths of my frustration, House Speaker Tip O'Neill called: "Joseph, is it true you hired a chef for $12,000?"

"Yes, Mr. Speaker."

"Well, I've got some advice for you: Any guy in this town that hires a chef for twelve grand had better hire a food taster." He laughed and so did I, for the first time that day.

"Don't let it get you down," he added. "It'll pass. You'll do beautiful things. Just get on with it."

That evening on the television news I watched reporters scurry around Carter as he was boarding his helicopter on the south lawn of the White House for a weekend at Camp David.

"Mr. Califano says he's going to keep his chef," cried a correspondent. "Do you approve?" Carter smiled and said, "I hesitate to discuss a problem so involved with so little thought." Then the smile left his face. "I trust him," Carter said, and boarded the aircraft.