Yesterday, we debuted the first part of our interview with former White House chef Walter Scheib on MUNCHIES. But if you need a refresher, Scheib offered his culinary services as Executive Chef of the White House for 11 years, personally selected by Hillary for the Clinton administration and serving the Bush family during George W.’s first term. Now, he’s the author of White House Chef as well as the founder of The American Chef, which offers cooking classes, event planning, and speaking engagements where he recounts some of his up-close-and-personal experiences of making countless meals for the former POTUS and FLOTUS.
To round out his unveiled insights on the tricky task of defining American cuisine, the hot sauce affinities of the First Ladies, and the politics of regional barbecue, the second part of our interview digs into Scheib’s winning stint on Iron Chef America, his favorite White House guests to cook for, his distaste for molecular gastronomy, and the Presidents’ guilty pleasures when their wives were away. Read on for the full scoop.
MUNCHIES: You’re often asked about the diets of Presidents, but what are your favorite types of foods?
Walter Scheib: It’s like saying, “What’s your favorite song?” Well, everyone has a thousand favorite songs. It depends on what mood you’re in, what’s going on. I like full-flavored, spicy foods, and I like foods that have a certain degree of flavor complexity without being overworked. I love Thai and Ethiopian, but I also love a really great cheeseburger. It’s not really about what it is, but how it’s executed. Probably the greatest flavor you can have is to go into your backyard in August and pick a tomato off the vine that’s bursting with August sunshine, take a bite out of it, sprinkle some salt and pepper in the bite mark, and keep eating it like an apple.
I don’t like people who are faking it. In my estimate, and this will be a little bit controversial I suspect, the whole concept of this fad—and I use the word “fad” advisedly—of molecular gastronomy, it could not go away fast enough. This is the emperor’s new clothes of cuisine. It’s some guy who decided, I’m going to make food with chemicals. I don’t care for that. I also don’t care for foods that are gringo-ized, Americanized to the masses until it’s no longer authentic. I like things that taste as close as they would as if you were in the country that they were being made in originally.
You don’t act a fool at the White House if you can avoid it.
Who were you most honored to have cooked for?
When you’re working for the President and the First Lady, it’s hard to get starstruck. You’re working directly, on a first-name basis, with the two most powerful people on Earth. You’ve seen that Bill Clinton is a tremendously charismatic human being, and Bush also was, in his own way. So when you’re around these folks, they’re kind of the alpha males. And their wives were as charismatic, as powerful, and just as bright as they are. Obviously, the people coming through the White House are like a “who’s who” of the world. World leaders, business people, musicians, athletes. People who had been of service to the country in small ways, people who were released hostages.
Some of the most moving cases were the families of the people who went down in the planes on 9/11. And young children who were terminally ill would come, who were aware of their situation but were still so full of life and so affirming to everyone, to see how brave they could be. I got to see a lot of truly amazing things.
What was your approach to cooking for such varied world leaders who were from places with completely different cuisines?
American cuisine has representation from literally every culture on Earth, so this is what we’d do for State Dinners. Usually the menu would be four courses—three savory and then a dessert. We’d always try, the first course, to do some take on the ethnic overtone from that guest’s country—a cooking technique, flavor combination, or ingredient. Not in an authentic way, but an Americanized interpretation of that cuisine. This allowed the First Lady to then say something like, “Your people are part of our people, our people are part of your people. Your culture is part of our culture.” It was a good icebreaker and was a way to get the evening off on the right foot.
Were people generally on good behavior at these events or would they sometimes get wild?
Well … we won’t talk about that. That’s sort of family business. If they care to talk about that, that’s their prerogative. But it’s the White House. You don’t act a fool at the White House if you can avoid it.
The President runs the world, but the First Lady runs the house. But if she was out of town, maybe they’d want to break out the Porterhouses and the onion rings.
You once appeared on Iron Chef America. What was more stressful: going on Iron Chef, or cooking for unimaginably powerful world leaders?
The thing about the Food Network and about Iron Chef in particular is that I was in the White House when it was being developed, so I had never really seen it. Then, when I left the White House, one of the first phone calls I got was from the producers, inviting me to compete. I said, “I don’t know, let me think about it.”
I pulled up an episode to watch with my kids and I was aghast. I said, “Oh my god, this is like the professional wrestling of cooking.” The producer called back, and I said, “Look, I’m not going to do it.” And he said that no one ever tells them no, and I said, “Well, listen up, NO.” But the following year they called back and everyone said I should go on it. So I did it, we won, and according to my kids who keep track of these things, we had the highest score of any challenger that year and the third highest score period that year. But they give you like $2,000 that’s supposed to cover the cost of you and three people staying in New York for three days, and if you know anything about New York, you know that that barely covers your bar bill. Going on Iron Chef was fun, getting to write a small op-ed piece for the New York Times was fun—there have been some things that I never imagined I would do when I started chopping onions 40 years ago.
Who was a bigger midnight snacker: Clinton or Bush?
We really didn’t do much of the midnight snack thing. We would keep their private kitchen on the second floor stocked with the foods that they may or may not want. There was also a logbook that would let us know when the President or First Lady went to bed or got up, so that we’d be there, and if they did it again the next day then that would be our new biorhythm. As often as not, they weren’t just grabbing things themselves. There would be butlers and chefs available to them most of the time. But in terms of the comfort food, it isn’t a hotel or a restaurant or a private club. Well, I guess it’s sort of a private club. But it really is a private home, and it’s a little bit old school to say, but usually we would cook to the taste and the style of the First Lady. And then the President, if we was wise, he’d go along with it. The President runs the world, but the First Lady runs the house. But if she was out of town, maybe they’d want to break out the Porterhouses and the onion rings.
It’s well-known that George W. Bush doesn’t drink, but the New York Post recently claimed that Bill Clinton’s favorite drink is the Snakebite—lager mixed with cider. Was that true, in your experience?
President Bush is a recovering alcoholic and is very serious about not drinking. President Clinton, I think because he was raised Southern Baptist, he’s just not much of a drinker. But the First Ladies would have a cocktail or two. There was never a six-cocktail situation. And nobody would really know what their quote-unquote favorite drink was unless they were with the President in private. If the President’s on vacation and is seen out having a drink, people will think that’s what he drinks all the time. When people ask, “What’s the President’s favorite dish?,” I never say, because with the internet and everything, everywhere he goes from then on people will think that’s his favorite dish and that he wants to have it all the time.
I think a lot of it is the speculation. Being around the President, around the White House, is a bit of a narcotic. One of the biggest lessons I learned working at the White House was from Ann Stock, Mrs. Clinton’s social secretary. She said “Walter, if you want to be successful at this job, you can’t define yourself by how close you stand to the President in the pictures.” I was privileged to be one of a small number of people who received a Presidential service medallion at the end of the Clinton administration. That sort of recognition is what you get in the long term. You don’t look for a pat on the head every day. It was a great period, a wonderful honor, and a privilege, but I live my life in the windshield, and not in the rear view mirror. That job, it means being the most famous anonymous person you’ll ever meet.