Pleasing the palates of Capitol Hill lawmakers
Washington — ``I treat everyone the same in the kitchen. A good pot cleaner is just as important as a first cook,'' says chef James Lee. ``I mean, you can't cook a good meal in a dirty pot.'' That's democracy at work, and Mr. Lee knows his democracy as well as his duck soup. Not surprising, as he has been a fixture here on Capitol Hill for the past 29 years.
As executive chef of the Dirksen Senate Office Building food operation since 1969, Lee has been privy to the palates of senators, presidents, potentates, and princes.
``It's my nature to love people, and anything I can do to make these important people happy makes me happy,'' he says with a grin that Walter Mondale would have paid money for.
And if pictures don't lie, it seems to work. Flipping through his scrapbook of photos of the shakers and makers of governments, one finds pictures in which everyone seems to have the contented look of a Carnation cow.
Cooking comes naturally to Jimmy Lee. Back on the farm in North Carolina where he was born, he helped his mother in the kitchen. ``At 15, I was cooking whole meals for some of the white families in the neighborhood,'' the chef says.
When the Senate is in session, Lee rallies his staff of 30 and starts the pot boiling at 5 in the morning. After all, he can expect as many as 1,500 for breakfast and lunch on any given day.
And if that is not enough cooking, it's he who does most of what's done at his home as well. ``Yeah, I guess I spoiled my wife real early,'' he says, shaking his head.
Chef Lee describes his style as ``plain cookin' with kind of a Southern touch.'' But it's not just the Dixieites who come back for seconds.
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R) of Connecticut would do anything but change political parties for Jimmy Lee's crab cakes. In fact, Lee has been over to Senator Weicker's home to cook a batch of them expressly for the senator's family and friends. And Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii melts over Lee's beef stew and rice.
Sometimes when senators miss their local tidbits, Jimmy Lee helps out.
``Sen. [Frank H.] Murkowski [(R) of Alaska] has even brought fresh salmon and venison from Alaska for me to cook up,'' he says with a grin.
``These folks here are so important, I'm just so proud to be able to spread a little joy in their lives,'' he adds.
Chef Lee spreads that joy with a wedge of sweet potato pie, a scoop of bread pudding, and a side of bean soup.
And he's picked up a little political savvy, too, after all these years on Capitol Hill. Willing as he is to dish out the rice and peas, he is tight-lipped when it comes to spilling the beans.
During our kitchen interview I asked Lee, ``Who's got the best palate on the Hill?'' ``If you could go to any senator's house and have him cook for you, whose would it be?'' ``Any senators particularly easy or difficult to please?'' ``Oh, no, I'd rather not say,'' he said, with another shake of the head.
Well, then, are Republicans any different from Democrats?
``Nope, they're all the same kind of people,'' says Lee diplomatically.
While he is none too eager to part with his recipes -- ``I hope to be putting a book out soon, so don't want to pass too many around, you know'' -- Lee has passed around this one: Chef Lee's Bread Pudding 3 eggs, lightly beaten 1 1/2 cups white sugar 2 tablespoons brown sugar 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 stick butter, melted 3 cups heavy cream 4 cups day-old white bread, cubed 3/4 cup raisins
In a large bowl, mix together eggs, white and brown sugars, and nutmeg. Add melted butter and cream. Mix well. Stir in bread and raisins and let stand 15 minutes, then pour into well-buttered deep pan or casserole dish.
Bake in preheated 375-degree F. oven for 50 to 60 minutes, until top is golden brown. Serve warm with butter-vanilla sauce. Serves 6 to 8. Butter Vanilla Sauce 1 egg, beaten 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 3 tablespoons brown sugar 1/2 cup white sugar 2 tablespoons butter, melted 1 tablespoon flour 1 teaspoon vanilla extract Dash of nutmeg
Combine all ingredients in double boiler. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon until thickened.