Who's cookin' in the White House?

Does it matter who serves as chef to the Obamas?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

"Probably the fastest way you could get people in America to change the way they eat is to have the president eating consciously and eating with not only his mouth but his mind," Ms. Reichl says. "Everybody is looking to the Obamas as an example in so many things and this could be really powerful."

People seem to be interested in what the new first family does: A small Iowa bakery found itself swamped with orders for its chocolate chunk cookies after word got out the Obama girls liked them.

Before the announcement to retain Comerford was made, Reichl dreamed of a "first chef" who could help be a culinary thought leader for the nation, issuing weekly menus detailing what the first family ate, offering tips on cooking with turnips or pole beans in season or ideas for creating meatless meals.

Reichl – along with influential Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer – had penned a letter to the Obamas offering to help head a committee to select a chef who would champion organic, sustainable, and seasonal cuisine.

Attempts to lobby for a change in chefs annoyed Mr. Scheib – the White House chef for 11 years before Comerford – who said all along that he thought the Obamas would retain her.

"She is an extremely high-level cuisinier, very flexible, and she knows how it works at the White House, which is how you work with the family and take the right attitude and strike the right pose," Mr. Scheib says. "The ... only thing important to the chef in the White House is serving the first family. If that means macaroni and cheese 10 days in a row, that's what you cook."

Scheib says that, just as he did, Comerford cooks with the best organic and local produce available.

The Bushes have praised Comerford's skills in creating American cuisine. An official press release on the White House website says that Comerford has collaborated with Chef John Ash and others showcasing American regional styles of cooking.

In the next four years, observers hope that Comerford's skill in creating organic and health-conscious fare that highlights American gastronomy will be put to greater use in diplomatic settings.

"I was shocked to see the paltry number of state dinners held over the past eight years in the White House," Mr. Meyer says. "It's clear to me the Bush White House had very little interest in gastronomy or the pleasure of the table or using the table as a way to bring people together."

Meyer, whose New York restaurant empire includes such institutions as Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, says that he sees the Obamas as a cultured couple who, he hopes, will recognize the power and pleasure of conviviality and entertaining in the same way the Kennedys did.

"Food is one of the most potent ways I know to bring people together from different cultures," Meyer says. "And to make a statement for the rest of the country on how to enjoy food in a way that is both pleasurable and responsible."

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