Yesterday, the true Vice himself—Vice President Joe Biden—paid a visit to our very own VICE offices. But while Presidents’ schedules—and those of their Vice’s—are filled with speaking engagements, diplomacy, and meetings galore all over the world (including to our lucky digs), it can be easy to forget that a world leader’s still gotta eat. Ditto the First Family, who all eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner made by the White House’s executive chef.
You may not recognize Walter Scheib’s name right off the bat, but there’s no doubt that you’re familiar with his work. Scheib served as the chef at the White House for 11 years; he was handpicked by Hillary for the Clinton administration and continued his service through the first half of George W. Bush’s tenure. Now, he’s the author of White House Chef and spends his days running his company The American Chef, which offers cooking classes, event planning, and speaking engagements where he shares some of the wisdom and craziness that he accrued at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
We caught up with Walter for a phone chat while he leaned against a palm tree in beautiful Florida and we chattered our teeth into shards in New York’s current real-life snowglobe. He had so many interesting insights about the real definition of American food, the First Ladies’ love of hot sauce, and the way that 9/11 changed our diets that we’ve split his interview into two parts. Check out the first installment below, and visit MUNCHIES tomorrow for part two!
MUNCHIES: It’s been ten years since you worked in the White House, but you’ve kept very busy since. What do you miss about working there, and what are you glad to be done with?
Walter Scheib: When you work at the White House, you’re working at what we used to call “White House flex time,” which means you get to choose any 85 hours you want to work each week, and the rest of your free time is yours. [laughs] I don’t miss that component, but what I do miss is being in the White House. I miss getting to service the First Family in that way and to the country, you get that honor and that privilege of getting to know the President and his family— not as the cartoon characters you see on the nightly news, but as the nuanced and very real and interesting people. Secondly, the camaraderie of the team—of all 90 employees in the residence—really are a distinct and unique group of individuals, not only in their particular expertise and the talents that they have, but more importantly, their understanding of the heart of service of working for this family. You basically become anonymous—you check your ego and your politics at the door and you’re only there to give the First Family an island of sanity in a very crazy world. It takes a unique temperament to be able to do that for an extended period of time.
Do you miss it, or are you relieved that your life is less stressful now?
Well, last year I did 85 events and was on the road for 300 days a year, as there is a tremendous interest in hearing humorous and humanizing stories about the two First Families. It really is a word-of-mouth business; the more you do, the more you do. I thought that after a year or two the novelty would wear off, but it’s been proven that each year it actually gets more busy than the previous. Of course, with Secretary/Senator Mrs. Clinton running for president and being, at the very least, a favored candidate to be in the big race, that of course will increase interest that much more.
It’s known that she’s a huge fan of yours, and personally chose you for the role of chef while she was the First Lady. Do you think you could be called back into service if she succeeds?
Well, I mean, of course if the President asks you to be of service to the country, you’d be hard-pressed to say no. If she wants me, she knows my phone number and I’ll be of service. I don’t care if it was a Republican or Democrat, if I knew them or didn’t know them—if the President asked me to serve, I would do it.
There are no tasters. The idea of a taster is a very Medieval one. If you wanted to poison someone these days, it could take up to a couple of weeks to even have an effect.
It would probably be a lot different now since Bill is basically a vegan.
Well, that’s the urban myth. I don’t know that that’s true. If you’re trying to keep a fairly austere regimen—and veganism is that in my estimate—it’s very difficult to do. I think you have to present that you’re doing it full-time and taking it seriously so that you don’t get presented with things by chefs that you would be tempted by. I know a number of chefs that have served the former President over the years. While he trends towards veganism and vegetarianism, it isn’t totally exclusive. We’ll just put it that way.
What was it like the first day you started as a chef at the White House?
My first day was so strange. The day of 9/11 was curious, the day that the administration changed over was strange too—so there have been some days that I never imagined in my wildest dreams would play out—but going to my first day at work and passing by 3,000 people that had lined up to walk around and check out the residence, getting my first phone call from the President or First Lady calling me by my first name, recognizing the fact that while it’s just a bowl of oatmeal or a sandwich, it’s going to the single most important person or another member of the family in the world …
It really is a daunting proposition, knowing that there can be no mistakes. There can be no dilemmas where the President gets sick, you have to be very careful of things. Then, of course there’s the honor of course of being like, who am I serving every day? And then learning the history of the house so that you can be an ambassador to the White House and to the First Family when visitors come.
What was the screening and security process like, working in the White House every day?
The clearance that you have when you’re working in the White House is called Top Secret Presidential Proximity. “Top secret” is—well, everyone knows what that is—but the “presidential proximity” part means that you can be in close physical contact with the President and the First Family with no Secret Service around you. Obviously, this is one of the most security-cleared posts you can get. In terms of the few of us that are in the kitchen who have that clearance, if you think about it, we’re not just around outside and next to the President; we’re physically inside of him. You really couldn’t get any more close to that. In a way, you may be one of the singularly most trusted people in the whole country.
That reminds me of a story that was circulating recently, that Obama got flak for allegedly turning down some food at an event because he didn’t have his taster with him.
Well, that’s another urban myth. There are no tasters. The idea of a taster is a very Medieval one. If you wanted to poison someone these days, it could take up to a couple of weeks to even have an effect. Stuff takes on a life of its own, and for the most part, the White House doesn’t follow up on it or deny it. They just let it fly. There are a number of people around the President who are aware of what’s going on and who are aware of the protocols of what he eats and what he doesn’t eat, but there would be no one who would say don’t eat this or don’t eat that. There are security protocols in place to protect him, but the idea of someone tasting all of his food before he tastes it is absurd. I am honestly very apolitical, but if you look at the outlets that were spreading that story it’s fairly obvious why it was being spread.
I think Mrs. Clinton had about 50 or 60 different hot sauces that she liked to use, and Mrs. Bush just had one that she liked, but she would use it on just about everything.
One of your legacies is that you’re said to have really distilled and advanced the concept of American cuisine while you were in the White House. What do you think are its fundamental, signature characteristics?
Food is a representative of the culture of the country it’s in and the people who are eating it. American food is a very clear representative—by far—of the most diverse and far-flung country that there is. I would characterize American food by three things: First, at its core, it’s not about complicated or difficult technique, but about great, delicious, big, and full flavors. Secondly, there are regional influences. This idea of big flavors really circulated in the mid-70s and suddenly you saw all of these regional cuisines popping up, whether it was Alice Waters out in California, or Mark Miller down in the Southwest, or Tom Douglas up in the Northwest. And the third play is the ethnic one.
You don’t sound old enough to have been dining out in the 70s or early 80s [Ed. note: I’m not], but in those days, you’d say “We’re going out for Chinese,” which was some sort of amorphous Eastern type of food, or “We’re going for French,” which was some sort of cream-sauced, overly done, tuxedo-clad cuisine, or “We’re going for Italian” which was some sort of pasta with red sauce, or pizza. And that was about it. These days, you can walk down the street of any medium-sized city and see ten or 12 different Asian cuisines represented, half a dozen Italian styles, another ten or 12 European styles, South American cuisine, you name it. In America, there’s no orthodoxy. You can cook whatever or however you want, and if the food is good, people will find you and they’ll eat it.
Bush and Clinton were both known to love rich, Southwestern types of foods. How would you compare their diets to one another?
Food at the White House didn’t delineate along party lines, but it delineated very closely along gender lines. Both of the First Ladies had very eclectic palates, always wanting to try new and different things all the time. Mrs. Clinton, like Michelle Obama, was very interested in the nutritional components of food and a healthy lifestyle. It’s not well-known, but Mrs. Bush was adamant that as often as possible we would use organic food at the White House table. She was in Austin, apparently, when the concept of Whole Foods was coming up and really bought into the idea of organics. And they both liked spicy food. I think Mrs. Clinton had about 50 or 60 different hot sauces that she bought and liked to use, and Mrs. Bush just had one that she liked, but she would use it on just about everything, so the effect was the same. Cooking for the Presidents, I think they would have been just as happy if we had opened a barbecue pit or a burger joint in the basement. You can see that President Obama continues this trend. While his wife is a representative for responsible dining and regional food, every time you see the President he’s eating a triple cheeseburger with a side of fries wherever he is that particular. It seems Presidents are still eating their stereotypical guy food, while First Ladies are laboring to try to get people to dine responsibly.
But both presidents that I worked for like Southwestern—one’s from Texas, one’s from Arkansas. But the real dichotomy you’re talking about is barbecue. If I had to pick a national dish, people always say it’s apple pie or hot dogs—it’s not. It’s barbecue! Barbecue is in every region in the country and there are many different takes on it. And when you’ve get a Texan and an Arkansan, the Texan will tell you that barbecue was beef brisket dry-rubbed and hot-cooked over a fire, and then sliced with a sauce on the side. But an Arkansan will tell you that it’s a slow-cooked, wet-cooked, pulled and sauced pork. Both of them will tell you very distinctly that the other one isn’t really barbecue.
Did you feel like there was a difference in the foods that Presidents ate during the more difficult times: the wars and tragedies and scandals?
Whether it was scandals, horrible occurrences, wars, or things not going as planned, clearly you see them in very pressured moments, both good times and bad times. Part of being the White House chef is being aware of what mood the house is in and what’s appropriate for the time—what kind of food should you be serving? I noticed right after 9/11—when I was looking back through all of my recipes for my book—that without any prompting, all of the food changed from being very eclectic and very forward-thinking, to going back into very safe food. Your mother’s table, if you will. I think the country was very confused about what was going on and everyone wanted to grab onto an anchor, and in this case, that was food. I’m doing research for a book I’m working on right now, but I think that maybe this slow food, locavore movement going on right now can really find its genesis back in the weeks and months post-9/11, as people were shying away from this very flamboyant cuisine and wanting something more soul-satisfying.
Click here to read Confessions of a White House Chef, Part Two.