To ensure the president – any president – and his team are eating the right food. There are several strict rules that the kitchen workers must follow to ensure everything is perfect– not to mention unique rules that administrations have asked for. There’s plenty of wild history here, too.
Ready to Go 24/7
While they might not be saving lives like doctors in the ER, cooks, and chefs that work in the White House, have to be on call at all times. From the middle of the night during the fall to the middle of Christmas morning...and all other times during the year.
Former pastry chef Bill Yosses had an interview with "HuffPost" in February 2020 and pretty much confirmed it. “In theory, we were working 24/7.” You might be picturing the most powerful person in the world ordering up a midnight snack on a whim, but in reality, there are many official reasons for this.
Energy and Focus
Yosses worked in the White House from 2006 to 2014, and he explained why chefs have to be available at all times. “There could be a national emergency, and the people involved have to get up at 3:00 A.M. and handle a crisis.” While these men and women work hard to keep potential problems or late-night raids in-hand, the kitchen staff has to be there to feed them.
While White House employees might not be hungry at those times, the staff has to be ready to prepare food at a moment's notice. The last thing this country wants is people dealing with a crisis on an empty stomach.
Which Kitchen is Yours?
Heading to the kitchen in the most famous home in the United States is a little more complicated than just heading to the office. As it turns out, the White House boasts three such rooms. The first and most important is the principal kitchen, where most of the work gets done. This is where meals big and small are prepared by experts who love to make mouth-watering dishes.
The second is a kitchen dedicated solely to pastries, desserts, and other sweet treats. Finally, the First Family has a kitchen where they can make their own meals or do a little bit of cooking on their own time.
What's on the Menu Today?
In one way, presidents are just like any of us. We have certain foods we like and those we can't stand. Take Richard Nixon, for instance, who would regularly ask for cottage cheese with thick ketchup covering. Definitely a weird choice, but there's some thought behind it.
This prez ate the dairy item because he thought it was good for him (cottage cheese is quite healthy), but he hated how it tasted. George W. Bush enjoyed a specific kind of pie: cheeseburger pizza. It's exactly what it sounds like – a pizza with cheeseburger toppings, including beef, lettuce, and cheese. It's tasty but certainly not the healthiest choice of an everyday meal.
The Wildest Things That Presidents Enjoy
Former White House chef Roland Mesnier wrote a memoir in 2007 that dished out the strangest things that former leaders of the free world have had on their menu. The strangest, by far, was something Bill Clinton used to enjoy. According to Mesnier, it was an “atrocious concoction of Coca-Cola-flavored jelly served with black glacé cherries.
We're not exactly sure what those cherries are, but that doesn't sound good. Yet it's nothing compared to what presidents of yore dined on. James Garfield, president from March 4th, 1881, all the way until September 19th, 1881 (at which point he died due to assassination), ordered squirrel stew. A little more common then.
She's the Boss
You might think it's the person in the Oval Office who is in charge of hiring and firing these world-class chefs, but it's actually the spouse (which, the whole time, has been known as the First Lady. Eventually we'll get a First...Gentleman) The president has enough on his plate to worry about the chefs.
Then-First Lady Laura Bush dismissed her head chef Walter Scheib after he'd worked at the White House for eleven years due to “differences.” This allegation was denied by Scheib, but an anonymous White House staffer said he kept serving scallops, despite none of the First Family liking them.
She Sets the Rules
Just like millions of families across the United States, the better half would set the rules about what the president gets to chow on. During an October 2019 interview with ABC7's Victoria Sanchez, former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier said: “President Reagan loved chocolate, but Mrs. Reagan told me never to give him chocolate.”
Of course, when the wife is away, the cooks will play, and Mesnier reportedly slipped the Gipper plenty of sweet treats over the years. Pretty much every modern president requests more desserts while the wife is out of the house.
The kitchen workers in the White House have two major backgrounds they're picked from. The first is what you would expect – a traditional restaurant experience where they cut their teeth pleasing picky patrons. The second is those that were part of the military.
Former chef Bill Yosses elaborated on these details in an interview: “The military chefs are often Navy/Coast Guard, but there are also a few from the Army and Air Force. They're very much the unsung heroes in America.” Likely, the reasoning here is that military cooks are aware of the dire consequences awaiting them if they don't do as they're told or don't know the rules.
Remember This Guy?
One of the chefs that the White House has taken from the military is Andre Rush, whose favorite off-time activity is clearly hitting the gym. A picture of him went viral – it had him showing off his large-caliber guns while cooking some meat. The man himself appeared in an interview with "Food & Wine" magazine in 2019, talking about his job and the picture.
“Chef Rush has become a little meme now. It's hilarious. I get a kick out of them.” Chef Rush is just one chef among many in the WH, but he at least has a nickname. The other chefs call him “Tiny.”
Ready for the Most Important Events
If there is one category of things that have to go off without a hitch, even the smallest, tiniest error, it's state dinners. When another head of state visits the United States, a grand meal is displayed to enjoy as a welcoming gesture. If even the smallest thing goes wrong, it could end up being a diplomatic disaster.
While there are lots of different ways, these can go wrong – such as when three unwelcome guests snuck into a 2009 state dinner – but as the food is the main focus of a dinner, it's up to the chefs to make sure it's world-class.
Strict Time Limits and Special Courses
When the First Lady picks out at least four courses, the chefs get to work. They have to cook them to perfection based on exactly what the First Lady designates – serving beef to a Hindu or pork to a Muslim guest would be tantamount to giving your one-hour notice.
They're under a strict time limit to get all the work done, as the courses must be served under an hour from start to finish. Muscle-bound chef Rush explained how much pressure they're under in a 2020 interview with "HuffPost": “The dinners are a lot of pressure. We can have ten people doing one little course.”
Lots of Prestige, But Not a Lot of Pay
The job of being the executive chef at the White House is a big one, but it doesn't come with a big paycheck attached, at least compared to other executive chef positions. There's plenty of prestige that comes with the position, seeing as you're providing food for the most important family in the country, but the payment doesn't come with any overtime.
Thanks to all the extra work, and the fact that chefs are on call 24/7, the bank account is a little bare than what an executive chef would make at a restaurant in most major cities. When Laura Bus fired Walter Scheib, she had difficulty replacing him just because of the salary offered.
A Little Bit Less Than You Might Expect
When Laura Bush finally found Scheib's replacement (Cristeta Comerford, the first woman to hold the executive chef position) in August of 2005. While reporting on her appointment, "The New York Times" brought up the salary issue and explained.
“The Pay is $80,000 to $100,000 a year with no overtime for what is primarily a private family chef who occasionally has an opportunity to show off at a state dinner is well below what top-level chefs can earn on the outside.” It's still a pretty good chunk of change, and there's definitely weight attached to the position.
White House-Brand on Tap
In 2011, Barack Obama became the first-ever sitting president to brew his own brew at the White House. He handed out these same brews while on the campaign trail. President Obama's partner in this unique micro-brewery was Sam Kass, a White House chef and a senior adviser for nutrition policy.
Kass gave an interview to Smithsonian in 2017, in which he shed some light on why the president had chosen to take part in this off-the-wall hobby. You have to admit; it isn't the kind of hobby a busy statesman often picks up. Of course, it was Kass doing the lion's share of the work.
A Transformation of Culture
During his 2017 interview with Smithsonian, Kass spilled the hops: “There's been a transformation in beer culture over the last 15 years. Not only are there thousands of small breweries popping up all over the country, but people are [also] brewing their own beer in their basements all over the place.
And I just thought it would be great to join in that kind of great American tradition – or a budding tradition, nevertheless – and brew some of our own beer.” The beer is no longer being brewed, seeing how both Obama and Kass are no longer in the White House.
They Can Order Anything with the Touch of a Button
Those lucky folks who have been inside the Oval office have probably noticed the little red button attached to the Resolute Desk. While there are plenty of fantastic thoughts about what this button does, from talking to cabinet members to launching nuclear strikes, it actually just connects the president to those in the kitchen to order nibbles or drinks.
There are actually lots and lots of steps for the president to order a nuclear strike, thankfully. You might be able to order some nuclear-strength hot sauce, but no bombs.
A Spot of Tea?
In billionaire Richard Branson's 2017 book, we got a first-person account of what Obama used this button for. Branson, in the book, recalled: “I noticed the red buttons on [the president's] desk. Obama saw me looking at them. He said, “They used to be there for emergencies, but now I use them for ordering tea for my guests.'”
Thanks to the increases in communication technology, as well as cell phones, stationary buttons that are used to connect to a single place aren't exactly useful anymore. But, if you want to talk to the kitchen from your office, it's the perfect way to communicate.
Building the Best Gingerbread House
Beginning in 1972, the White House has had a regular tradition after Thanksgiving. A gingerbread house is something that lots of households put together, and there are even plenty of great creators out there, but most of them are nothing like those that appear in the White House.
Former White House pastry chef Susan Morrison had an interview with Oprah's magazine "O" in 2016. “I spend all year thinking about the White House gingerbread house, but we don't begin baking until November.” These gingerbread houses have to be seen to be believed.
The Hardest Four Days for a White House Pastry Chef
Susan Morrison continued: “Then, for about four days after Thanksgiving, we work tirelessly to build the house before moving it to the State Dining Room, where more than 60,000 guests will cycle through. And it has to look as perfect as it did on day one – which means it can't melt, it can't be affected by the humidity, and it can't be touched!”
We wonder if the gingerbread house has an around-the-clock guard to prevent wandering fingers from finding their way to these incredible creations. The gingerbread houses are always brand-new, and every year they're different.
The Rules of the White House
Even the kitchen workers in the White House have strict rules they have to follow when it comes to talking with the media. Before Cristeta Comerford became the executive chef, she was one of the assistant chefs in the White House.
Her name was one of the options in the hat for becoming the next executive chef, which is why "The New York Times" reached out for a story from her about the kitchen and who would be the next head honcho in the most important kitchen in the country. Of course, Comerford followed the rules and told the newspaper, “You know the rules of the house.”
More Interviews After Hiring
However, it seems that it's just the hiring process that the White House wants to be kept under wraps (there are likely numerous security reasons for this). Once Comerford became the executive chef, she became more forthcoming in interviews and talks.
She's opened up about her role and has talked about some of her most memorable experiences in the kitchen, and has even shared a few of her favorite recipes. These include a Winter Green Salad, a Sweet-Potato Soufflé with Burnt Marshmallows, and peppermint fudge cookies.
If You Don't Have the Clearance, You Aren't Getting In
It should come as no surprise that even the chefs and cooks who work in the White House have to pass stringent security checks. Walter Scheib explained it all to "Vice" magazine in 2015. As the ex-chef says: “The clearance that you have when you're working in the White House is called Top Secret Presidential Proximity.
The 'presidential proximity' part means that you can be in close contact with the president and the First Family with no Secret Service around you.” It's much more than just being near the president, of course – they're preparing his food.
Trust Must be Paramount
Scheib went on, talking about just how important it is that the chefs and kitchen workers are on the side of America. “In terms of the few of us that are in the kitchen who have that clearance, if you think about it, we're not just around outside and next to the president; we're feeding him.”
Scheib wanted to get the point across that; “You really couldn't get any closer to that. In a way, you may be one of the most trusted people in the entire country.”
The Biggest Day Every Four Years
The biggest day for White House kitchen workers is January 20th, every four (or eight) years. The old president moves out, and a new one moves in to assume office. It's one of the most chaotic moments in the country, and for the cooks working there, it's twenty-four-hour work. All of the household staff has to be on their toes.
Until midday, they work for the sitting president, bringing food and drink to the First Family as they're getting ready to move out. Still, at six P.M. the new president and First Family moves in, meaning the staff has six hours to clean dishes, prepare the kitchen, and start preparing new food.
The President has the Last Word
The presidents have all had foods they want to eat, but just like any of us, there are foods that they don't want to handle. Perhaps the most famous example of this is George H.W. Bush's famous hatred of broccoli. “[...]I haven't liked it since I was a little kid, and my mother made me eat it.
I'm the President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!” Man's got a point. Another example is Ronald Reagan's dislike for weird jelly beans, and George W. Bush has disliked pretzels since he choked on one in 2002.
Look, Just Don't Serve Him Anything Green to be Safe
The message for the George H. W. Bush example is quite clear. Don't serve him any broccoli. It doesn't matter if he was in the White House, Air Force One, or anywhere else – he didn't want it. It wasn't the only veggie he refused, too.
In a 2011 C-SPAN show called Conversation with White House Chefs, former staff member Pierre Chambrin remembered, “I served [Bush] some Brussels sprouts. And he told the butler, 'Tell Pierre never to serve that to me again.'”
How Hard is it to Get a White House Chef Job?
Don't expect to see a listing for a White House kitchen job on Monster or Indeed. Nothing the White House does is traditional compared to the rest of the country. If you want to work as a chef for the First Family, you have to connect to someone already working there or have another way of knowing about the job first-hand.
There have even been a few cases where chefs or cooks have trained their children to do the same job. Just like for a lot of different jobs and opportunities, it isn't about what you know, but who you know. As well as passing security checks.
It Takes a Lot of Luck
If you're a well-known chef who passes the first round, someone from the White House might come calling if there's a position open. Henry Haller was the executive chef at the White House for more than twenty years, from 1966 to 1987, and he was hand-picked by President Lyndon B. Johnson himself. Haller's wife Carol told the website AUI Fine Foods “There was a security clearance after [Henry] was hired.
We saw guys in black suits walking around the neighborhood asking questions about us.” If you're going to be cooking and serving the president's food, then the Secret Service needs to know everything about you.
It Doesn't Matter if You Didn't Apply
Chef Susan Morrison didn't even apply for her position as a pastry chef. In 2016 she told "O," “In 1995, I was employed at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, in McLean, Virginia, when I was called in to meet with the White House's then-executive pastry chef. He was looking for a contractor but refused to learn about candidates from their résumé.
He put me to work for two days.” Morrison's odd trial period was successful. She got the job and started to rise the ranks. She would later become the executive pastry chef during the Obama and Trump years and often spent her time on the gingerbread house.
Menus Have to be Perfect
Martin Mongiello, a White House executive chef for almost thirty years, spoke to the radio news magazine show WGLT's Sound Ideas about some of the things that happened when dignitaries from abroad visited the White House. There were lots of things that had to be taken into account, including religious and cultural requirements.
Mongiello said that in most cases, the menu would be a split between traditional American fare and food from the visiting country. While that seems simple enough, it can actually be a pretty tough puzzle to get through. What kind of the main dish? What about salad? Dessert? What drinks do you serve?
Paying Attention to Every Single Detail
Mongiello had more to say: “You have to be able to control your minds and your hands. You're cooking for Muslim special guests; you have kosher meals that need to be served that night. You may have any different kinds of diets.
It's a bit challenging in that regard, but they're certain isn't any room for attitude.” If you're a parent reading this, think about how picky your kids can be when they see something they don't like. If you serve the wrong thing, it could be an international disturbance.
The World's Greatest Easter Egg Hunt
The social calendar for the White House is always full, but one of the most beloved traditions is the Easter Egg Roll. Kids from all over the area are invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to take part in various fun spring activities. This includes a big Easter Egg Hunt, as well as a race where they push Easter eggs along on spoons.
Of course, somebody has to cook and decorate all of those eggs, and as you might expect, the job falls to the kitchen staff. If you think you've made a lot of decorated eggs for Easter, get ready for something to put you in your place.
The Chickens Have Certainly Been Busy
The chefs of the White House have to boil and dye more than fourteen thousand eggs for the day. All of the work is done by hand to maintain the kitchen's good standing. It's difficult, time-consuming work (lots of unpaid overtime, remember?), but it's one of the White House's biggest events because it gives kids a chance to explore the grounds and have some fun.
The Easter Egg Roll is an exciting occasion for all attendees, and the high demand for places means the ticket lotteries only stay open for a few days before they're gone.
Food safety is something of great importance anywhere, so as you can imagine, it's doubly so in the White House. Once again, Walter Sheib spilled the beans on some of the details, though not too many – there are other security details to follow. In 2013 a rumor sprang up about President Obama having a food taster, such as those who would check for poison and quality in the medieval era.
While Scheib has said there is no food taster, this was likely a cheeky lie to keep the person responsible out of the public eye. In fact, it's been a common practice – probably – since the Reagan era.
Plenty of Food Screening
While Schieb has said that there is no such thing as a food taster, no morsel reaches the president or even the First Family in general without someone checking it for all kinds of quality issues. “Nothing gets to the president that hasn't fallen under somebody's jurisdiction. If the president is just grabbing a pretzel randomly at the table, it's been screened.”
Scheib also said that foreign dignitaries didn't employ food tasters, but that was because the White House was a secure facility. Of course, the food is always the freshest and highest-quality the kitchen can find. A meal there is always perfect.
Some Rules Are Made to be Broken
There was a period in the early part of the twentieth century known as Prohibition, during which alcohol of all kinds was outlawed in the United States. Naturally, it was very hard to find. Unless, of course, you happened to be the president.
The 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, both voted in favor of Prohibition and then went on to throw wild, booze-fueled bashes right in the White House. As you might have guessed, Prohibition wasn’t actually all that popular, and the decision was reversed a few years later. It lasted a mere thirteen years, from 1920 to 1933.
A Loophole That Lots Took Advantage Of
The Prohibition-era had a few new rules to remember to reduce crime and corruption that had a lot to do with the sale of alcohol. However, President Harding did wasn’t actually illegal - it was perfectly fine to drink as much booze as you wanted. The only things Prohibition made illegal were making alcohol, transporting it, or selling it.
The White House staff watched Harding happily toss back one glass after another, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it - they weren’t going to risk their jobs to rat on the president doing something that was technically legal.
Who Foots the Bill?
All that food, all that help, and all that work have got to cost a whole lot of money. Is the American taxpayer shelling out for all these fancy feasts? Not so - in fact, since the nineteenth century and President John Adams, the occupants of the White House are required to pay for all of their own food.
It’s not totally on their dime. However - state dinners and other official government functions still come from the government funds. The prez takes in a cool four hundred thousand a year, and thanks to the free lodging, there’s plenty of money left for food, but those prices can rack up if the First Family isn’t careful.
It Costs How Much?!
After she, her husband, and her family went back to civilian life in 2017, Michelle Obama began to open up about what it was like living in the White House. In November of 2018, she talked to Jimmy Kimmel on his television show "Jimmy Kimmel Live." She said that the White House staff would happily bring her anything she wanted, no matter if it wasn’t in season or readily available.
Of course, if it was rare or required a lot of prep, that came with a high price. Michelle Obama recounted one story of asking for a peach when it wasn’t in season, and then experiencing some hefty sticker shock: “Then you get the bill for a peach, and you’re like, ‘That was $500 for a peach!’”
An Unexpected Tradition
Times were quite a bit different when the United States of America began.
So different, in fact, that both the very first president, George Washington, and the third president, Thomas Jefferson, staffed the White House kitchen with laborers. Not a good look, guys.
You Had to Be Able to Handle the Heat
Being a chef in the White House Kitchen requires plenty of different skills. Before the modern era, people who worked there had to act like barbecue pitmasters and standard cooks. Before Millard Fillmore took office in 1850, all cooking in the White House kitchens took place over an open flame.
Even when stovetops became more prominent, BBQ was a popular choice for presidents to serve guests. According to "Hearth and Home" magazine, this was actually called “barbecue diplomacy.” Washington himself started it. Lyndon Johnson earned the moniker “barbecuer-in-chief” for his meaty meals.
One of the Oddest Presidential Meals Ever Served
On June 11th, 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (not the current Queen Elizabeth – her mother) at Hyde Park, their home in Hudson Valley. This was, in fact, the very first time a reigning British monarch visited a former colony.
The president decided to serve some traditional American fare: hot dogs and beer. The King and Queen then went swimming with the president. As you can imagine, this was somewhat of an informal event. We are unsure if the monarch enjoyed the food served to him, but we're still allies even today, so it can't have been that bad.
Getting a Facelift
Even the most famous kitchen in the United States will become outdated once technology makes enough steps forward. But that wasn't even why the kitchen in the White House got a big change in 1933. During that year, Roosevelt's housekeeper toured the kitchen and discovered so many kitchens that she demanded immediate renovation work.
Historian Lydia Barker Tedrick wrote in her book "A Look at White House Kitchens," quoting the housekeeper: “'Mrs. Roosevelt and I looked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was that sort of place.'” The New Deal Public Works Administration funded the renovation. It resulted in a largely stainless steel kitchen for Harry Truman when he took office in 1945.
A Hands-On First Lady
When General Eisenhower became President Eisenhower, his wife, Mamie Eisenhower, took over the kitchen. She was a career homemaker, and it was where she felt the most comfortable. She directed staff, planned menus, and had a hand in getting ready for state dinners.
She even crafted the grocery lists herself. She was a thrifty gal. She often said, “I could squeeze a dollar so tight, you could hear the eagle scream.” Mamie was also always looking ahead at food innovations that would become commonplace and often had the kitchen serve gelatin foods, frozen foods, boxed foods, and canned foods.
White House Meals as Cost-Saving Lessons
During the Great Depression, finding money for food was never an easy job. The White House had an easier time than most, as you can guess. Still, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt joined forces with Cornell University's School of Home Economics to devise seven-and-a-half-cent meals that were both economical and nutritious. “[The Menu] wasn't about flavor,” said Carl Anthony, a historian with the National First Ladies' Library.
“It was about simple, economical, and nutritious. It was an important statement for that time.” Eleanor Roosevelt's favorite dish to cook was scrambled eggs in a chafing dish. Roosevelt Sunday suppers often consisted of these eggs, cold meat, salad, and dessert.
Wild Rice, Wine, and Beyond
Every president and First Family have had their specific tastes, which means some big changes with every administration. First Lady Nancy Reagan made sure chefs tested important dinners on herself and Ronald before serving at formal events, and they had fancy platters most of the time. Gerald Ford, or one of his chefs, was fascinated with wild rice, and the grain appeared on the menu constantly.
Prime Minister Giuliu Andreotti of Italy, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany many other foreign dignitaries sampled the dish. Thomas Jefferson was more interested in his wine cellar and often drank four glasses a night.
Everyone has a Weird Favorite
Here's one of the weirdest favorites that you yourself have probably eaten: fruitcake. Franklin Delano Roosevelt enjoyed foods he could dig in-to, and fruitcake, with its mealy texture and thick weight, certainly fits the bill. Fruitcake was a common sight in many homes since it was a good way to keep fruit from spoiling and keep it around longer.
During the Great Depression, saving everything you could save was paramount. Roosevelt had several more normal favorites, such as grilled cheese and his wife's scrambled eggs.
George W. Bush Loved to Give Nicknames
While he might not have lasted long in the second Bush administration, Chef Scheib was still liked by President Bush. Bush, who had a habit of giving people nicknames, would often pop into the kitchen after a morning of presidenting and ask, “Cookie, what's for lunch?”
While there was always a menu Scheib was working on; he also had ingredients to make the president's favorite main dish: peanut butter and honey sandwich. While Scheib, and Bush's wife Laura, might have liked Bush to eat healthier fare, it's also important for the president to be happy, and that kind of sandwich sounds like it hits the spot.
Unable to Recreate Mother's Recipe
Gingerbread cookies aren't exactly a luxury nowadays, and for a lot of us, we have fond memories of enjoying them during the holidays. Abraham Lincoln also had fond memories, but they were quite rare for him. In 1858, he said during a debate, “When we lived in Indiana, once in a while, my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and make some gingerbread.
It wasn't often, and it was our biggest treat.” When he entered the White House, he enjoyed this holiday treat year-round, yet his mother had never written her recipe down, and so while the White House kitchen tried its best, it never really stacked up.