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Fooling Clinton: White House chefs tell all

The Washington Post's Emily Heil bakes the cheesecake that fooled former president Bill Clinton. (The Washington Post)

Many parents are familiar with the trick of sneaking vegetables and other healthful stuff into their kids’ food. Turns out White House chefs were doing something similar for notorious junk-food lover Bill Clinton when they were whipping up his grub.

We were intrigued by a recent Facebook post by Marti Mongiello, the former executive chef at Camp David. He had posted on the wall of Dean Ornish, the famed diet guru who worked with White House chefs during the Clinton administration to health-ify their traditionally buttery, calorie-laden French fare. In the post, he described the subterfuge involved in making the president’s meals: “I figured it best not to tell him about it. I still have never fully told him the truth,” he wrote. And he hinted at being “called on the carpet” by Hillary Clinton.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Ooh, dishy! We contacted him to get the full story. According to Mongiello, he was cooking for the Clintons at Camp David after the edict had come down to lighten up the menus. Word from the waiters serving the dinner was that the first lady was unhappy with the meal’s entree, a luscious fettuccine Alfredo.

“She wants to see you out there,” Mongiello recalls a waiter telling him. “Dude, you’re gonna get fired.”

Confident but still worried, he appeared in the dining room, where she asked him why he was serving such a high-fat dish when such things were now taboo.

“She said, ‘Look, there’s cream, there’s cheese — these things are illegal.’ And I just explained how I made it.”

Which was with low-fat alternatives that were so convincing the Clintons had mistaken them for their caloric cousins. Instead of cream, he used pureed rice. A nut or rice-milk cheese stood in for the usual Parmesan. All on the A-okay list.

“Her reaction was: ‘Wow, I can’t believe it. We thought those were a thing of the past.’ She wasn’t mad or anything, she was just really concerned about her husband’s health.”

So he wasn’t fired for trying to pull the wool over the first couple’s eyes — or at least their taste buds. He went on to cook plenty of lighter fare for the family, including, he remembers, a cheesecake that sneaks in tofu and lighter-fat ingredients.

The recipe came to him one weekend after he had faxed a weekend’s worth of menus to head White House chef Walter Scheib. The boss sent him a 20-page message in return. There was a new direction, he said. The first lady had just appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and had become acquainted with the work of her chef, Rosie Daley, and wanted the White House chefs to incorporate some of the O’s favorite recipes.

The secretly-slimmed down cheesecake, he said, was a favorite. It had fooled a president. This, we thought, we have to taste. So Mongiello shared the recipe and wished us well.

The concoction is pretty simple to make — dump a few ingredients in the food processor, whiz them up, and bake. It skips the buttery crust and swaps lighter versions of the usual ingredients: egg whites instead of whole eggs, low-fat cream cheese for full-fat. (You can find the full recipe on the Loop blog at

The results? We brought the finished product into the newsroom, and the reviews ranged from “meh” to “not bad.”

Good enough, apparently, to satisfy the president’s sweet tooth. Of course, Bill Clinton is eating vegan these days, so he’s not eating even the lightened-up version.

But even then, Mongiello took the healthy-eating edict seriously. “I wasn’t going to do anything to contribute to the death of a president.”

Pine tar, spitballs and . . .

The agency that serves as the umpire of campaign finance law is calling a strike against Major League Baseball. The Federal Election Commission says baseball contributed too much to the campaign of Sen. Jeff Sessions.

MLB’s political action committee gave $5,000 to the Alabama Republican last year and pitched him another five grand this May. But election law says such PACs can give a total of only $5,000 per candidate per election.

In a letter, the FEC ordered baseball to get a refund from the senator’s campaign, and although it says it could take more legal action, the agency noted that “your prompt action in obtaining a refund and/or redesignating the contribution(s) will be taken into consideration.”

Sounds like an umpire warning the bench after a fastball inside.

An attorney for MLB explained that it was a technical error. One of the checks actually went to Sessions’s primary race and the other to his general. Just a matter of a box that needs checking, which the league will promptly fix, he says.

In other words, a minor muff.

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