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Who's cookin' in the White House?

Does it matter who serves as chef to the Obamas?

By Maria C. HuntContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 2009

Amid the excitement leading up to Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th US president, foodies had been dishing about who they thought might be the chef the Obamas would bring to the White House.

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But that pot-stirring speculation ended earlier this month when Michelle Obama issued a statement saying that the Obamas would retain the current White House Executive Chef, Cristeta Comerford.

Ms. Comerford became the first woman and the first minority to hold the post when she was appointed by Laura Bush in 2005. She has worked in the White House kitchen since 1995, including serving as sous-chef under the previous executive chef, Walter Scheib III. She was born in the Philippines and worked in hotels in Austria and Washington, after receiving a degree in Food Technology from the University of the Philippines.

"Cristeta Comerford brings such incredible talent to the White House operation and came very highly regarded from the Bush family. Also the mom of a young daughter, I appreciate our shared perspective on the importance of healthy eating and healthy families," said Mrs. Obama in a statement issued by the transition team. "I look forward to working with her in the years to come."

Two chefs who were thought to be under consideration for the post were Art Smith, owner of the upscale Southern comfort food restaurant Table Fifty-Two in Chicago and the new Art and Soul in Washington, and Rick Bayless, who creates inventive regional Mexican cuisine at Topolobampo in Chicago.

Perhaps Comerford will ask Mr. Smith to share his recipe for the macaroni and cheese Michelle Obama likes so much or Mr. Bayless for tips on making his Sopa Azteca (tortilla soup) and guacamole, which are popular with the first couple.

The choice of a chief cook may seem frivolous compared to challenges such as reversing the recession, creating jobs, and extricating US troops from Iraq. But with pressing food-related issues such as obesity and the pollution created by conventional farming, an influential group of foodies including Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl had hoped that the Obamas and their chef would seize this opportunity to get the nation thinking about eating local, seasonal, and organic fare and sustainably raised meat and seafood.