From 1994 to 2005, Walter Scheib prepared meals for the Clinton and Bush families as well as foreign dignitaries such as Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela. Currently, he owns American Chef Event Services and is a culinary partner of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, Penn.
How did you become the White House’s Executive Chef?
I had been working in a Five-Star/Five-Diamond restaurant at the Greenbriar resort [in West Virginia], when Mrs. Clinton mentioned to the press that she wanted to bring new American cuisine to the White House. There were 4,000 applicants for the job. I was one of 20 who were interviewed. They asked you to come and cook for the first lady and her inner circle. And they don’t tell you what they want you to do or how many courses or anything; you’re sort of just flying blind. It was a very, very daunting experience.
What do you think gave you the edge over the other applicants?
Well, that’s like asking your wife why she married you as opposed to marrying Tom or Bill or John. I never really asked why me as opposed to one of the other chefs, but she had said that she was looking at not just doing this American cuisine for her own home-style dining at the White House, but to do it for all the state dinners and large functions, so I made note of that in [my sales pitch]. And she said, “You know, you were the only one who mentioned anything about that.” So that may have been the differentiation, but that’s just speculation on my part.
What were some of the challenges you faced preparing meals for the first family and their guests?
Obviously, working at the White House is not a hotel or restaurant, it’s a private home. As in most American homes, we kind of ran the operation at the White House on the concept that if momma’s happy, everyone’s happy. In terms of being challenging, [you had to be] very, very aware of what folks like and didn’t like and be sure that you left your ego out of it — it wasn’t about what you wanted to cook, it was about what they wanted to eat — paid as much attention as possible and to anticipated their needs. There were many times that both first ladies would say, “Chef, how did you know that’s what we wanted?” and I said, “Well, I think about you guys seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
What was the difference between what the Clintons ate versus what the Bushes ate?
You know, I get asked that question frequently, and I think it’s amusing that there’s a concept that there might be a red state food and a blue state food. It didn’t divide along political lines. The diet at the White House delineated more along gender lines. Both first ladies had very eclectic palates and liked to try new and different things all the time. And Mrs. Bush, to her credit, was very adamant about everything being organic, she wanted as much organic product as possible used at the White House. Both presidents on the other hand — I think if we opened up a burger or rib joint in the basement, they would have been just as happy.
How did you develop menus for state dinners?
State dinners were a lot more like Broadway shows than they were like dinners: There was plenty of time to rehearse and lots and lots of scripting. [First] you would get an announcement from the social secretary saying that such and such a country is coming. [Then] you’d get a booklet from the State Department’s Office of Protocol, sort of delineating any religions concerns in terms of the food, any personal dietary concerns, medical concerns, personal preferences of the guest country … From that, we’d develop a series of menus for the consideration of the first lady.
Typically, these menus would be four courses. We’d always try to start the menu with a tip of culinary hat to the guest country, whether it was a flavor combination and ingredient or cooking technique of that country, to let them know: Your country is part of our country; your people are part of our people; there’s a lot of cultural overlap. The next two courses, we would really highlight something that was best or most unique about the season or a particular region of our country.
[Sometimes] the first ladies would just select a menu. If they wanted to do a tasting, which Mrs. Bush frequently did, she’d have 10 to 15 people over and we’d have sort of a mini “Iron Chef” [with] good-natured ribbing as we’d pick out what we’d actually serve.
Once the menu was decided on, we’d rehearse it a number of times, and be sure we had it completely down. State dinners are a big to-do, and it’s not a hotel or a restaurant, so if it doesn’t go exactly right, then God forbid one of the first ladies would be embarrassed by something in the press. You can’t make it go away by giving 10 percent off the bill and a free glass of champagne. There’s a little bit more pressure than that.
Did you ever get to meet the dignitaries coming in?
Not that often. A notable exception to that is Tony Blair. Mr. and Mrs. Blair were far and away the most frequent visitors of both administrations. When I went back to write my book (“White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen”), I was looking at all my menu files and [realized] they had visited the Clintons and Bushes well over three dozen times.
The only other one that I got to meet with any real interaction was Nelson Mandela, who was a really saintlike and special individual, the most amazing guy. He asked for a small resident audience; he said he identified more with working folks than he did with world leaders. We didn’t get a real question and answer period or anything like that, but getting to meet the guy like that one on one … The rest of the time, these guys are there on business — it’s the culmination of a week, or three to five days of conferences, treaty writing announcements and such, and the [state] dinner is just one component of that.
Could you tell whether dignitaries enjoyed the meal ?
When President Chirac from France came over for the first time, there was a big to-do [in the press] that French food was being thrown out, and Mrs. Clinton was a little anxious. At the beginning, President Clinton toasted and said, “We love France, France loves America. And one thing I want to say is we have a new American chef who’s doing American cuisine tonight.” At the end of the meal, President Chirac stood up and said, if this is what American food is, he could say that he loved American food as well as he loved the country. But rarely did anyone comment on the food.
Who was the pickiest eater?
Probably Chelsea, because she actually became a vegan at the White House. By her senior year of high school, [she] had assumed a whole lifestyle, so we had to sort of re-teach ourselves how to cook. Although, that’s not really picky, that’s particular. Matter of fact, she was so serious about it that when she was going out to Stamford, neither Mrs. Clinton nor the secret service [wanted] Chelsea going to the dining halls or out in public for security reasons, so Mrs. Clinton called down and asked if Chelsea could come and learn to cook with us in the kitchen. That summer, Chelsea spent probably six weeks with us, three or four days a week, four to five hours a day learning the rudiments, and in some cases the intermediate levels, of vegetarian cooking. So she is the one and only graduate of Walter Scheib’s cooking school.
When did you decide to come back to private life?
The decision was not completely my own. When you work in politics, and in the White House specifically, you understand that you serve at the pleasure of the family and there is no tenure. At the end of any administration and the beginning of another administration, there’s attrition. As a matter of fact, I had been so clearly identified as Hillary Clinton’s chef, I absolutely expected [to be let go], but I was thrilled that Mrs. Bush was impressed enough with what we had done that she asked me to stay on.
Unfortunately, one year into Bush’s term 9/11 occurred and basically everything changed — there was no more real, social entertaining, no more receptions. One of the great perks that a first lady has — to leave her social agenda or style on the White House — was taken away from Mrs. Bush. So at the beginning of her second term, Mrs. Bush made a number of changes in her cabinet, and her chief of staff, her secretary, her press agent, press secretary and her chef were all given the opportunity to — how do you say it? —pursue other opportunities. Mrs. Bush was far-sighted enough to go out and hire the first professional female chef for the White House … Cris Comerford, who had been my assistant chef for eight years.
I’ve got two great jobs now, I get to work out here with the great folks at Hershey. We’re not only developing new restaurants and new concepts, but also taking the time to look at some of the things we’re doing and see if we’re doing what we want and sort of polishing them up. It’s been an opportunity to go back to operating on a larger scale and do some things that I’ve enjoyed. (I’m first and foremost a hotel guy and operations guy.) And the other half of what I do is get paid to go around the world going to cocktail parties [as a speaker and consultant]. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.
What are you passionate about in terms of food and beverage for groups?
There is really only one thing that you can be passionate about: Making sure that the guests are thrilled about their experiences. When you leave a hotel or a restaurant after a meal or after a meeting, you rarely take anything with you other than remembrances or memories … the experience that you had. So our goal is that every experience … is great, that the guest has a wonderful time.
What are some of the biggest trends you’re seeing?
As our population demographic changes, so the demographic of our food changes. We’re seeing more flavor and spice combinations from other countries being Americanized. You’re seeing more and more lively, more jazz-like cuisine as opposed to more traditional European cuisine.
I think the other trend is the green/nutritional trend. People are very concerned these days with the pedigree of their food: Where it came from, how it was grown, what the carbon footprint is; if it’s an animal, is it humanely raised and taken care of; that there’s no hormones or steroids. People are very concerned that what we’re eating is not only good for us, it is good for the environment and good for nature in general. If I had to pick the one trend that in the next five years is really going to change how restaurateurs and hoteliers do business, it’s that trend, because people are really very knowledgeable about what food is now, and very intent that the pedigree is what they want, right down to what you serve it on. If you’re doing something on disposable wear, it better be biodegradable wear as opposed to plastic. People really are very, very intent that this is done responsibly.
What F&B advice do you have for meeting and event planners?
- Do your homework. Be sure you know what’s good and interesting in the ethnic, agricultural and restaurant communities that you’re going into.
- Be sure that you don’t fall into too much of a comfort zone. Challenge yourself to get out and try something different. If you don’t, the next thing you know the only thing you’ll be serving is terrible rubber chicken or that steak and seafood plate that’s become such a terrible cliché.
- Challenge food and beverage teams and tell them what’s important to you. I think many of the food and beverage teams are tired of doing the same thing day in and day out and really welcome the opportunity to do something new and different.
- Review your budgets and [be prepared] to pay a little bit more to get something that’s good.
I think that meeting planners have to recognize that it isn’t just the business end that’s important to their clients; it’s the social aspect, too. A memorable meal is something that the guests and clients are going to come away from saying:”That was really unique. That was different. That was something that I haven’t had a hundred times before.” Repeat business comes from great experiences. So stop being complacent, be aware of what’s going on in an area, and don’t fall into clichés.