Monday, August 20, 2007

Food for Thought

I am intrigued by the logistics of professional food preparation. I am a Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen junkie (How many minutes to the pass? Two, chef), but I have no idea what that means. These programs never show us how the food is prepared ready for that last minute onslaught. I do realize, however, that there is a military precision involved in plating food in a restaurant. So it was no surprise to learn that the army supported the production of food for White House picnics (henceforth known as “Outdoor Events”) by lending a mobile kitchen trailer (or MKT).

This was just one of the many things I learned in a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Eleven Years, two Presidents, One Kitchen is a delightful book written by Walter Scheib, who was the chef at the White House for the last seven years of the Clinton administration and the beginning of George Bush’s term in office. The author describes the innermost workings of a part of the White House which has rarely been written about, probably because many people would not be interested. The book is a charming mélange of history, glimpses into the lives of the presidents and their families and recipes. The latter I am not terribly eager to try—they tend to have alarmingly long lists of ingredients—but the vignettes of the inhabitants of the White House are compelling. The author notes in his preface, “There’s no so-called “dirt” to be found about the First Families here”, but in the interests of full disclosure I must admit I went to the index, only to find that the entry after “Lemongrass and Red Curry Dressing” was Limerick, Chris, Director of Housekeeping.

The author is clearly partial to the Clintons, and it is surprising to see a Hillary Clinton with a clear vision of the kind of food she wanted for the White House (encompassing American regional cuisine, with an eye to increasing nutrition and lowering fat content). The First Lady who was anathema to cookie-baking moms throughout America had a clear understanding of what she wanted from an Executive Chef and made sure that her daughter Chelsea learned the basics of food preparation and cooking before she went off to Stanford.

We watch the preparations for State dinners and meet Tony Blair, Chirac and Nelson Mandela, not to mention a President of the Russian Federation who enjoyed the Vodka Marinated Salmon and proceeded to marinate everything, including himself, in the liquid.

Scheib’s tenure in the White House was at a historic time and we see his dawning realization on September 11 that although there were procedures in place for the evacuation of the government, the staff were on their own. We also see him, as the only chef left in the building that day, providing food for 900 Secret Service and other personnel.

There was a different atmosphere in the Bush White House. The president didn’t like green food or “wet” fish, and indicated that all sandwiches were to be served with Lay’s potato chips. Things went downhill from there and although Scheib is respectful of the President, he paints a grim picture of the conditions which caused him ultimately to be fired. The anecdote about the Social Secretary and the Interior Decorator arguing about how many tulips to strew artfully on a platter of food is hilarious.

If you want to learn how to slice salmon, cook hot dogs for George Bush or cater receptions for thousands, you will enjoy this book. I did.


candyschultz said...

To the pass means the handoff to the server or waitperson. Now I have to read this book.

annie said...

Hi! I am Bridget's (46er family) sister and I have enjoyed your blog. The book looks like a great read! When I am to tired to cook, I can just read about great cooking!

Beryl Ament said...

Welcome, Annie. Thanks for stopping by. I hope I'll get to meet you someday. They say the Adirondacks are nice at this time of year!