Lady iron chef and her White House kitchen confidential
On a recent visit to Delhi for the culinary version of G20, Cristeta Comerford recounts what it takes to be the first female head chef at the White House
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Cristeta Comerford, the 54-year-old Filipino-American head chef at the White House since 2005, resolutely refused to divulge details of US President Barack Obama’s breakfast menu.
“You know, just normal breakfast at home...fruits, yogurt, a good omelette,” said Comerford, the first female head chef at the White House, measuring her words. “President Obama is a very healthy eater,” she said when prodded further.
Comerford was in New Delhi recently to participate in the annual assembly of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs (CCC), an elite four-decade-old gastronomic society for the personal chefs of heads of states.
India hosted the CCC conference for the first time this year since it became a member in 1990. Seventeen chefs from different countries exchanged recipes and pushed the envelope for gastro-diplomacy in the culinary version of G20, sometimes even letting slip some nifty little trifles of their presidential kitchens: like how the Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau counts Shepherd’s pie as his favourite dish, or Isto Tahvanainento, chef to the president of Finland, has made shahi paneer for his boss many times over. Did you know German chancellor Angela Merkel craves cheese after every meal? Or that Her Majesty, the Queen of England, takes the final decision on every meal at the Buckingham Palace where they still use cooking pans from the days of Queen Victoria?
Between sampling the dazzling array of spices at Khari Baoli in Chandni Chowk (the biggest wholesale spices market in Asia) to calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a quick meet to cooking roasted kuri squash soup during a fundraiser for children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi’s charity, Comerford, much like a hard-nosed diplomat, stayed guarded and friendly, admiring and concise, playing the role of a culinary ambassador to a tee. She also tactfully deflected all inquiries about Obama’s dietary details and her thoughts on the US presidential election results.
But while Comerford withheld kitchen scoops from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she did recount her journey from the suburbs of Manila to the kitchen of the world’s most powerful man. Comerford was born in a family of 11 children to a school principal father and a seamstress mother in 1962 in Sampaloc, in the Philippines. She was fond of cooking even while growing up. Having left her course midway in food technology from the University of the Philippines, an eager Comerford was more interested in working when she migrated to the US in 1983, even though her father had advised her to attend culinary school.
Her fascination with the colour white, when she first saw her mentor chef at the Sheraton group of hotels in Chicago in chef’s whites, was prescient. “When I saw the chef’s white hat, the white shirt, the white pants, and the white apron... I knew that this is what I wanted to be,” she said. She soon worked her way through the ranks, moving from the Sheraton to the Hyatt, and eventually settling in Washington DC after marriage.
In 1995, she was working at the ANA hotel when she got an offer to join the White House as a sous chef. Ten years later, Laura Bush, appointed Comerford as the executive chef of the White House.
Today, Comerford is a sum of all the varied chefs she’s worked with—be it her first mentor who was finicky about the ingredients he used, or her French chef who trained her in classical techniques.
Her petite frame and a smiling face easily hide her single-minded devotion to her craft. “As a woman chef, I am not as muscularly built as my counterparts. But you grab a big pot and you just work smart,” she said, indicating how she has managed to manoeuvre through the rigours of the profession.
At the White House, she leads a staff of seven principal chefs. Even with the erratic hours, Comerford wakes up at four every morning and exercises for about 40 minutes before she starts her hour-long drive to the White House to report at 6am. It is during her drive to work that Comerford makes a mental map of all that is important for the day. This mental checklist is the only ready reckoner she has to orchestrate her day.
In a 2011 profile published in The Wall Street Journal, Comerford is shown composing the details of a crucial state dinner, a meal of “five courses served to 200 people in 48 minutes”, for former Chinese President Hu Jintao, in her creative crucible of a Volvo: “On the hour-long drive from her Columbia, Md., home, she fine-tuned the recipes, envisioned colors and created the final plating in her mind. Then she instructed the staff, down to the last knife cut.” This method of preparedness has served her well as the commander-in-chef of the White House. “You really have to rehearse what you have to do for the day. You try to prevent goof-ups instead of firefighting,” said Comerford.
She is fond of bragging about her biryani-making skills to her Indian neighbour in Washington DC, and is definitely going to make the rotis and kebabs she had at Bukhara, Comerford said. She also tried the “puffy ball where you put the potatoes inside, along with the peas…” during her street food adventures in the city.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and trousers, Comerford is also the first person from an ethnic minority to hold the position that she does. She has seen two presidents come and go at the White House along with their distinctive food preferences. But ask her how the palate of the White House is likely to change when the new president moves in next year and you immediately get an I-have-to-stop-you-right-there look.
Our lady of the cookhouse becomes the savvy statesman again.