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."
Comerford, who is married with one child, lives in Columbia. She holds a degree in food technology from the University of the Philippines and specializes in ethnic and American cuisine.
Scheib called his former assistant "definitely the best candidate they could have chosen." As the chef search got underway, applicants said the first lady was looking for sophisticated restaurant food.
"They told me that barbecue and Tex-Mex would be very little of what they're looking for," said Richard Hamilton, former chef at the Spiced Pear in the Chanler Hotel in Newport, R.I., and a finalist for the job. "They talked about famous, high-end restaurants and showed me ideas from cookbooks. They said they wanted to be wowed."
Finding the wow factor proved difficult. The White House wanted a high-profile chef, but the job doesn't pay as much as today's ccelebrity chefs can earn with television, cookbook and endorsement deals -- none of which is allowed while working for the first family.
The White House chef has been paid $80,000 to $100,000 in recent years. But former chefs could boost their salary with overtime; new regulations no longer allow that.
Still, the job is considered an honor and certainly doesn't hurt a chef's reputation, said Scheib, who recently signed a book deal with John Wiley & Sons to write about cooking in the White House.
During the chef search, Hamilton was twice asked to cook for the Bushes, including a private dinner for 12 in June. He admits he had some problems working with the kitchen staff during his first visit "because, quite frankly, they wanted the job." His second visit, he said, "was great. We really clicked."
After news of his White House tryout leaked to his employer, Hamilton left his job and moved his family to New York. "It was hard for the owner of the restaurant because he didn't know if I was going to be staying or not. Relations got very strained," Hamilton said.
That was not the case in Dallas, however, where another candidate, Chris Ward, proudly framed and displayed an autographed menu from his dinner tryout at the White House near the entrance to his restaurant, the Mercury Grill.
Staff writer Jose Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.