John Moeller, left, cooked for President Bill Clinton and family, whose tastes changed over time. (John Moeller / LifeReloaded Specialty Publishing)
When you work at the White House, you leave your politics at the front door.
That may sound counterintuitive, but it is true if you work there as a chef.
“I was serving the most important people in the world” — the president of the United States and other world leaders — “but we saw them in a very different light from everyone else because it was a nonpolitical situation,” said John Moeller, who worked as a White House chef for 13 years.
“We tried to make their lives as comfortable as possible in whatever down time they had while they were living in that fishbowl.”
Moeller, 52, served for the very end of George H.W. Bush’s term in office, throughout Bill Clinton’s administration and into George W. Bush’s second term. Last year, he wrote a recipe-filled book about his experiences, “Dining at the White House: From the President’s Table to Yours” (American Lifestyle Publishing, $35), which recently won national awards for best autobiography, cookbook and memoir.
After studying in culinary school in America and then working for a series of restaurants in France and America, Moeller was brought to the White House by then-executive chef Pierre Chambrin, whom Moeller considers a mentor (Chambrin is now the executive chef at the St. Louis Club in Clayton, Mo.).
It was under Chambrin that he learned the primary lesson of working as a chef at the White House: Although much of your time is spent preparing state dinners and other official functions, you are a private chef and your job is to cook food that pleases the president and his family.
“This job isn’t for a big ego trip. You are in the back there, you do not step in front. You have to listen to them, you have to see what they want. You can make a great dish, and if they don’t like it, they don’t like it,” he said on the phone from Pennsylvania. “One night, you might be making mac and cheese out of a box and grilled chicken, because that is what the young Chelsea (Clinton) wanted when she was 12 years old.”
With each president, the chefs are handed a list of likes and dislikes.
George H.W. Bush and his family “liked a lot of different foods; they were very well-traveled. Our repertoire of items to work with was probably the biggest of the presidents I worked with. They didn’t like broccoli.”
The chefs would try to incorporate more international dishes into meals with the first Bushes. Moeller once cooked them a Japanese-style meal, with sushi rolls, salmon teriyaki and stir-fried vegetables. After dinner, he wanted to serve green tea, which he knew the president enjoyed when he had served as ambassador to China, but the other chefs were dead set against the idea.
The family always had coffee after dinner, and the chefs didn’t want to do anything different. Moeller suggested they serve both coffee and the tea, and the others eventually agreed.
“After dinner, the president came back and told me that in the four years he’d been there, he’d never had a meal like that.”
The Clintons “were a younger family with a younger child, so they didn’t want anything too exotic. They wanted basic foods. But as time went on, they became exposed to different kinds of foods. By they time they left, they liked things completely different.”
It was a delight having a teenage girl in the house when Chelsea Clinton was there, he said, and they enjoyed watching her tastes change and grow. Before she went to college, she spent several days in the kitchen learning what she could about cooking.
George W. Bush and his family were from Texas, and they particularly enjoyed Tex-Mex food. Moeller decided once that he wanted to make them fajitas, so as usual he submitted his menu to the first lady for her approval.
She liked the idea of the fajitas, with one exception. The family was Texan, she told Moeller, and in Texas, they eat corn tortillas instead of ones made of flour. So he learned how to make good corn tortillas.
Because they eat so much rich food at functions, the presidents Moeller served under tended to eat healthfully when they were alone, he said. They also craved homey dishes, such as Moeller’s own chicken pot pie.
“Good comfort food sometimes is what they are looking for. It doesn’t have to be froufrou and multilayered.”