Keep the Change

A White Christmas White House by Chef Thadeus DuBois

A White Christmas White House by Chef Thaddeus DuBois

Chef Thaddeus Dubois, despite his French name, grew up in Idaho and landed the job of pastry chef at the White House under the Bush Administration.  He says, “I think pastry is more important than hot food. It’s the final word of any meal.  DuBois was one of three finalists for the estimated $80,000-$100,000 a year job.

According to the New York Times, he had five interviews and prepared desserts for two small dinners for President George W. Bush, a former owner of the baseball team, the Texas Rangers. ‘W.’ was seduced with Chef Dubois’s individual popcorn parfaits made in white and red chocolate boxes, filled with layers of chocolate mousse, caramel mousse, peanuts, chocolate cake and caramel popcorn.  The showpiece that accompanied the parfaits was a baseball player made of spun sugar. It was a home run.

Dubois’ appointment qualified him to join the Club des Chefs des Chefs, an organization for chefs who cook or bake for heads of state–before he moved on to more fast paced surroundings at the Borgata hotel in Las Vegas.

The beloved Jacques Pepin worked as a chef for three French Presidents including Charles de Gaulle, but turned down the job offer of becoming the chef of the Kennedy White House. Instead he accepted a position at Howard Johnson’s.

When French-born René Verdon took the White House top chef position, he set the stage for Camelot.  Julia Child appeared on the small screen soon after. We all fell in love with Jack and Jackie, and Julia.  In the blink of that proverbial eye, we opened our eyes, our hearts and our bellies to the sophistication of French food.

Lately the bloom has been off the rose. W. ‘confessed,’ (if that is the appropriate word), “I have no food preferences, no drink preferences. A cheeseburger will be fine.”

Behind the scenes, a member of his White House kitchen staff revealed Dubya’s favorite foods are BLTs, grilled cheese, and peanut butter and honey sandwiches. These food choices may nevertheless constitute a gastronomical evolutionary step up from his father’s views on eating.

Many remember President George H.W. Bush’s declared abhorrence 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.” When he later graphically exhibited his displeasure with the food at a banquet given in his honor in Japan, the video of President ’41’ throwing up into the lap of his host was instantly flashed around the world.

Prior to his election, President Nixon campaigned vigorously seemingly eager to sample every regional specialty. When alone in the Oval Office, with a dozen chefs standing to attention and eager to fulfill his every desire, he chose to eat cottage cheese with ketchup for lunch every day.

Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, was famous for his capacious appetites which included humungous quantities of barbecue and bourbon and branch (water).

I suspect Nancy Reagan hasn’t eaten a thing since she was eighteen.

I once was honored beyond imagination to have lunch in the company of President Jimmy Carter at his favorite Plains, Georgia cafeteria.  This is, (how to describe it?), a remarkably modest eatery.  Submerged in globules of grease on the steam tables were  long-ago expired, soggy chicken wings, forlorn collard (almost black), greens and weary, wilted lettuce with a dressing made from what tasted like strawberry-flavored shampoo. I seem to remember the bill for my meal came to $1.97.

There was a 10 percent discount if you handed the cashier a ticket proving you had attended church services the previous Sunday. The President had just such a ticket and handed it, with a cheerful smile, to the lady taking the money. I got the distinct impression that lunch was not the former president’s top priority.

I mention all these presidential food preferences because the Commander-in-Chief is in a position to influence the nation when it comes to ‘what’s for dinner?’ The more we revere our leader, the more likely we are to emulate him. This is fundamentally why it is so important we elect the right man for the job. His task is to select the right White House chef.  Many food folk have an opinion on this subject.

Dr. Tim Ryan is a master chef. He is also President of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and one of only five Americans ever to receive the Presidential Medal from the World Association of Cooks Societies. He has nurtured several CIA alumni who have worked in the White House including Thaddeus Dubois and Walter Scheib.

President Ryan says, “Speculation about celebrity chefs is like engaging in fantasy football.”

He believes President Obama will seize the opportunity to make changes and has proposed John Doherty, another CIA grad, as a candidate for the position.  Doherty is the current executive chef at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Tim Ryan goes on to suggest that President Obama could also shake things up with a rotating cast of big-name chefs for state dinners, much in the same way John F. Kennedy invited famed artists and performers to the White House. We all know chefs are great performers. When President Ryan speaks, the culinary world pays attention.  We hope President Obama is listening too. He probably is.

President-elect Barack Obama and his family are the real thing: super foodies with wide-ranging palates. “They are totally adventurous people … they enjoy food,” said Chef/Owner Rick Bayless of Topolobampo, an uptown restaurant in downtown Chicago that’s a favorite with the next first family.

One caution: Mr. Obama has an aversion to beets even Harvard beets.  We hope heads of state are noting this fact carefully.  The last thing we need is yet another international faux pas.

They say most of us yearn for the food of our childhood.  If this is so, spam could be among President Obama’s favorite foods as he spent much of his childhood in Hawaii.

The Associated Press reports: “For many Americans, Spam is a four-letter word for unwanted e-mail. In Hawaii, Spam is a beloved comfort food, with cans of the gelatinous pork bricks found in virtually every cupboard.”

Hoping to cash in on Hawaii’s love affair with the pinkish meat product, Burger King Corp. last month began offering Spam for breakfast — going head-to-head with rival McDonald’s Corp., which has been featuring Spam in the islands for years. Burger King is offering the Spam Platter — two slices of Spam nestled between white rice and scrambled eggs. The fast-food giant also offers the Croissanwich or Biscuit Sandwich with Spam.

My New Year’s wish for the nation is a White House filled with good food, great wine, the laughter of little girls (and boys) and their parents from around the world.  Bon Appétit to one and all!  Let the good times roll. And, let’s keep the change.

A January 8, 2009 Update to This Piece: the New York Times reported that President-Elect Obama and his family are taking the Bush’s recommendation and sticking with the current executive chef, Cristeta “Cris” Comerford. First Lady Laura Bush’s office has praised Ms. Comerford in the past for creating “original dishes with American flavor.”