Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Sometimes you never know what might splinter off when you go to bat for a friend. When I took a public stance to stand behind Cris Comerford (current White House Executive Chef) I had no idea that the level of interest would just keep getting more interesting.

Josh Ozersky of The FEEDBAG - A Gastronomic Gazette had some hefty comments about the current events. You can read his article here. In addition, the following article is from National Public Radio's Monkey See Blog written by Todd Kilman.

Alice Waters Was a Foodie Hero. Now She's the Food Police.

by Todd Kliman

The big story in the food world this week was not that Top Chef host Tom Colicchio might have saved cookbook author Joan Nathan's life by performing a Heimlich maneuver on her at a pre-inaugural party at her house in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.

It's what took place in an upstairs room of that same house.

Marian Burros disclosed the closed-door mano-a-mano between feisty ex-White House chef Walter Scheib and righteous locavore Alice Waters for the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog.

How the feud started and how it ended, and why even a good "-ism" is still just an "-ism," after the jump...

The food feud has long roots, as I wrote in this space two weeks ago; it goes back to Scheib's days at the White House, when he resented having to prove himself to Waters as a champion of local and sustainable farming and fishing practices.

After the election, Waters went public in arguing that the Obamas ought to appoint a White House chef who would be a force for her movement. That rankled Scheib, who had mentored the current chef, Cristeta Comerford. (The Obamas have decided to retain Comerford.)

Waters and Scheib eventually reached a detente, Burros writes.

But that's not the news here. What is? The fact that someone finally had the guts to stand up to Waters' inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness.

A generation ago, her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, birthed a revolution, putting a new emphasis on farms and the importance of mastering simple, elemental things. It changed American food, and it changed American cooking.

But a generation later, it's not hard to see that what Waters espoused was really just an -ism. A good -ism, a necessary -ism -- but an -ism all the same. And -isms have their limitations.

Why, for instance, should top-flight chefs content themselves with using only what's local and seasonal when the emergence of new technologies has made it easier than ever to bring in delicacies from around the globe?

Yet many do. I've even seen some chefs so desperate to be perceived as gastronomically correct that they have lied about their purveyors on their menus.

Thanks to Waters' influence, a generation of ambitious chefs now confuse process and result. Shout-outs to their sources fill their menus, and transparency has become synonymous with integrity and honesty.

But do we really need to know the provenance of an egg? And more to the point: Shopping is not cooking.

At the moment, the best, most exciting food in the world, most critics agree, is to be found in Spain. Yes, the country is blessed with an abundance of good natural resources. But its chefs look around the world for inspiration and are more inclined to want to manipulate and enhance flavors than to present them simply.

And why not? Cooking, after all, is not about doing good; it's about tasting good.

Waters, like a lot of radicals, believes the movement will never end. She simply can't see that the revolution she helped lead has calcified into something doctrinaire and even repressive, not liberating and uplifting.

Todd Kliman is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic and the food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine. The Wild Vine, his book about the Rosetta stone of American wine, is due in 2009.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Here is Part II of Marion's coverage on Joan Nathan's Party:

Another Scene from Joan Nathan’s Party

Alice Waters and Walter Scheib, a former White House chef, have been nattering at one another for several months over who could or should cook for the new first family. The two reached a détente Sunday night, at the same party where Tom Colicchio performed the Heimlich maneuver on Joan Nathan.

They met during a dinner honoring a dozen chefs from around the country who came to Washington to cook a series of dinners. Held in private homes on Monday night, the dinners raised money for two local soup kitchens and helped promote Ms. Waters’s desire to make federal policy more welcoming to local, organic and sustainable food.

Mr. Scheib and Ms. Waters made their way to an upstairs room and closed the door. His first words were: “I’m 100 percent behind your agenda. The only dilemma I had is over what you said about Cris, who is my friend,” a reference to Cristeta Comerford, who was hired by Mr. Scheib and was promoted to executive chef after he left, in 2005. “She can’t talk publicly so I became her surrogate. I defend my friends.”

Ms. Waters and others had suggested the Obamas replace her with a chef who would cook locally and sustainably. Mr. Scheib took offense, he said, not only because Ms. Comerford is a talented cook, but because the White House kitchen already does many of the things Ms. Waters has suggested.

During the Clinton Administration, in response to a suggestion from Ms. Waters for a big vegetable garden on the White House lawn, a small garden was planted on the roof . It provided enough tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and herbs for the first family, but not their guests.

At about the same time, Mr. Scheib said, the White House began buying from about 40 different local farmers and co-ops, although for security reasons this was not widely discussed. If word leaked out that a purveyor was supplying food to the President, it was immediately dropped from the list, a Secret Service requirement.

Laura Bush took things a step further. “To her credit, Mrs. Bush was adamant about organic foods,” he said. “It goes counter to her perceived personality, but it was never important to her that the information to be released.”

Ms. Waters then explained herself, saying, “I never criticized Cris for what she does when I offered to help evaluate the cooking.” She added that she was relieved to learn that the Obamas were not hiring a celebrity chef, as some had suggested.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Joan Nathan's party drew dozens of chefs and a vast array of celebrities. Joan threw the party to honor the 10 chefs who were cooking dinners for the Art. Food. Hope. Fundraising Gala Dinner held in Washington, D.C. The dinner also drew the attention of Marion Burros from the New York Times. Here is the first of two articles Marion wrote in regards to the event.

LIFE OF THE PARTY: Woodward, Bernstein and Alice Waters

by Marian Burros

“How cool is it to get to talk to Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward and Alice Waters all in one night,” said Walter Scheib, the former White House chef as he surveyed the scene at one of this inaugural’s more unusual parties. “I grew up in the 70s and they were my heroes.”

And there they were, the unlikely combination under one roof Sunday night at the home of Joan Nathan, a cookbook author whose house was jammed to the rafters with almost 200 guests. Originally she had planned on 60.

It was a party, complete with a spit-roasted lamb, to honor 10 of the country’s most famous chefs who had come to town to cook at dinners Monday night in private home for guests who are paying $500 for the privilege. It is all part of Ms. Waters’s crusade to put the need for local, organic and sustainable food on the political agenda. She hopes her dinners will get Washington’s politicians to pay attention and, perhaps, convince the Obamas to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn.

“The next step,” she told the crowd, “is to find a way to bring sustainable food to the schools.”

The sold-out dinners will also benefit two Washington soup kitchens, Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen, as well as FreshFarm that operates farmers’ markets in the Washington region.”

In addition to Ms. Waters and her crew from Chez Panisse, some of the other chefs are Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber and Tom Colicchio from New York, and Rick Bayless from Chicago, whose restaurant Topolobampo, has entertained the Obamas once a month for the last several years.

Mr. Scheib was not the only one who was excited. Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, unable to attend any of the dinners Monday because of a conflict, was determined to meet Ms. Waters, his wife, Rhoda said. “We had to get to that party, no matter what; it was really important to him because the organic food labeling bill was signed when he was Secretary.”

Mrs. Glickman couldn’t stop talking about the party, different from most Washington parties, she said, which are far more buttoned up. “It was like no other party we had been to,” she said. “People were exchanging food off their plates. No one cared how they looked and only cared what they were eating. They were all so relaxed and it was like being in your neighbor’s kitchen and having dinner but with a 1000 people.

“Food was clearly the center and the chefs are huge celebrities, like Brangelina.”

And, it turns out, Mr. Glickman is all for a vegetable garden at the White House.

“I wouldn’t want them to have a garden just to have a garden,” he said, “but only if they really are interested in it and thought it would be a good symbol and an integral part of their lives.”

Monday, January 19, 2009


Scott, Foreign Editor
: It's a dangerous story for this paper.
Ben Bradlee
: How dangerous?
Scott, Foreign Editor
: Well, it's not that we're using nameless sources that bothers me. Or that everything we print, the White House denies. Or that no other papers are reprinting our stuff.
Howard Simons
: What then?
Scott, Foreign Editor
: Look, there are two thousand reporters in this town, are there five on Watergate? When did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom? Why would the republicans do it? McGovern's self-destructed just like Humphries, Muskie, the bunch of them. I don't believe this story. It doesn't make sense.

The story and the dialogue emanate from All the Presidents Men (the 1976 Oscar winning movie) based on the same book title by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Woodward and Bernstein are considered to be two of the finest investigative reporters of all time. When the Watergate burglary occurred in 1972, most of the American media downplayed the event. Bernstein and Woodward took the matter seriously and persevered with the investigation. And, just as the movie dialogue indicates, their actions did not make a lot of sense. However, their efforts paid off as they uncovered one of the biggest scandals in American politics.

Last night, I had the honor of meeting Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Woodward at a charity event. Our dialogue had nothing to do with investigative reporting, but the conversation was lively and engaging. Our individual takes on White House "going-ons " comes from a collective view of both inside domestic (mine) and outside observations and interviews. This is one conversation I will not soon forget.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Warm and joyful congratulations go out to Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford for accepting the offer to stay in the White House with the new first family. I am so pleased that Cris Comerford will continue her invaluable service. Her ingenuity, top level professionalism, dedication, and talent give tremendous cause for her well deserved recognition and success.

You can read more Cristeta and her appointment with the Obama family here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Goeb/Getty President George W. Bush (c.) stands with President-elect Barack Obama (2nd from l.), and former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

It is seven in the morning on the East Coast. If you are standing at the White House kitchen door you can smell the wafting aroma of fine foods being prepared. The chefs have been busy for hours cooking a top secret menu for today's special luncheon.

President George W. Bush is hosting this afternoon's luncheon for all the living former presidents (Jimmy Carter, George Herbert ,Walker Bush, Bill Clinton) and President Elect Barack Obama. I talk about this power lunch in a fun and lively interview on National Public Radio's All Things Considered show. You can listen here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Every New Year’s resolution begins with the key element of hopeful promises. On this New Year’s Day, I also am determined to set a course that abandons the familiar and sails towards integrity and truth. I think it is appropriate that I start with a response to an article that was printed in the New York Times on December 24, 2008. You can read the article here.

My best to all of you in 2009. Happy New Year!

Dear Ms. Severson,

My name is Walter Scheib, and for eleven years from 1994 to 2005 I was the Executive Chef at the White House. This offered me not only the personal honor of serving two unique and interesting first families, but also offered me the professional challenge of fulfilling Hillary Clinton’s mandate of bringing contemporary American cuisine and nutritionally responsible food to the White House.

While the White House Chef’s primary responsibility is to work as the personal chef to the First Family; an important secondary responsibility was to be sure that all cooking done and product procured for the White House was of the highest quality and first rate in every way. This meant that nearly all the products used was obtained from local growers and suppliers, in many cases directly from farm stands and growers. There also was a small garden on the roof of the White House where produce was grown for the families' use. The ethic of both the purchasing and the cooking at the White House under my direction and under the continuing direction of Cris Comerford, my assistant chef of seven years, is one of respect for both the pedigree of the product and manner it is grown, gathered, raised or caught. With this ethic in mind, I would like to address the article you wrote for the 12/24 NYT food section.

I have no knowledge of the President Elect’s agricultural philosophy or that of any of his appointments’, but I do have an intimate and unlike others quoted in your story, firsthand knowledge of the food served at the White House, and what the Chef’s position there really is. Unfortunately in the area of the food and cooking at the White House your article depends heavily on second hand and worse yet blogosphere assumption, speculation and cliché for its content.

Let me do a quick “fact check” on some of the content of your article. Ruth Reichl wants a chef that cooks “local and delicious” food. Delicious is in the mouth of the beholder, local product sourcing is the Modus Operandi of the kitchen and has been for over a decade.

You say that the President Elect “possesses a more-sophisticated palate” than his predecessors, as one who knows the diverse and culinarily curious palates of the families I served, I would say that at best is speculation.

Ms. Gehman Kohan’s assertion that the President Elect “is the first President who might have actually eaten organic food” is so grossly false as to be laughable. Both the Clinton and Bush families dined regularly on organic foods. Laura Bush to her credit and probably to your readers surprise was adamant that in ALL CASES if an organic product was available it was to be used in place of a non-organic product.

You say “add it all up and Mr. Obama looks like the first foodie president” in a long time, that may be true, but has little to do with the food at the White House as the First Ladies are the ones who give those marching orders. Hillary was clearly a “foodie” and her interest in bringing American food and good nutrition to the WH is well documented.

The tired cliché that President Clinton subsisted on a diet of Big Macs has been repeated ad nauseam; in seven years cooking for him not once was there a Mickey D bag sighted in the White House. Both grass fed and Wagyu beef was frequently used as were a tremendous variety of high end or atypical items and products. Organic produce and dairy, sustainably caught fish and a myriad of local and regional products were the products of choice of both families.

Finally the presumptions of Ms. Reichl, Ms. Waters and Mr. Meyer, that the admirable agenda they espouse, is not currently the practice in the White House kitchens are false. The food at the White House as it should be in everyone’s house, is local, organic, nutritionally responsible and most of all delicious. The current chef, Cris Comerford, is now and has always been deeply committed to these principles, as I was before her.

Thank you for your time,

Walter Scheib