In March 1994, the call went out in the food world: Hilary Clinton needed a chef.
She was looking for “a talented culinarian and strong team player with an eye for healthful dining in contemporary style,” recalls Walter Scheib, who ended up getting the job.
No sooner was he appointed than the debate began. Was Walter Scheib, all-American boy, the right man to represent the new global American cuisine? Had he the leadership to liberate the White House table from the tired Escoffier-style cuisine that had been served for decades? Were his culinary skills, somewhat rusty after executive positions in grand hotels, up to the daily challenge of practical work on the line? In essence, could he cook?
When I talked to Chef Scheib recently in the White House, a preliminary answer was set out on the kitchen table.
The muted green and gold plates used for everyday dining were decked out with an informal luncheon salad. Sheets of Lebanese lavash bread had been rolled around hearts of palm, carrot, onion, avocado and a minimum of cooked chicken breast, all flavored with cumin. On the side was a spoonful of lentil and leek salad - low fat and lots of flavor. The presentation, with the rolls pointing to the sky in pipe-organ style, underlined the contemporary approach.
Washington is very much Scheib’s hometown. He was born in Bethesda, Md., left school with no clear direction and almost by accident enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“To a U.S. kid raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s, this was a revelation,” Scheib says. “I found cooking was a profession, not just a job. For me, it was a watershed.”
After graduation, promotions came fast: first, the Hilton in Washington, D.C., then executive chef at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, with its nine restaurants at that time turning $22 million a year. After a stint at the old-style Mayflower Hotel back in Washington, in 1991 Scheib was hired away to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
“It was what I’d always aspired to, with its great reputation and an apprenticeship program that is second to none in the nation,” he says.
But to Scheib, the first lady’s call for a chef at the executive residence (as he is officially titled) was irresistible.
“I keep a diary and my wife reminded me that long ago, 10 years at least, I noted that I wanted one day to cook for the President,” he says. “Sounds hokey, doesn’t it?”
Chef Scheib’s current responsibility covers all of the White House official and unofficial menus, plus personal meals for the first family. Only desserts and pastry are separate, the province of Frenchman Roland Mesnier.
When the president travels, and with him the White House staff, so does Chef Scheib. So far, all trips have been within the United States, but Scheib is hopeful: “They take the dinner china overseas, so why not the chef?”
After a year at the White House, does cooking for the President make him nervous?
“Food is theater,” Scheib says. “I think it was Laurence Olivier who said that ‘any night with no butterflies in the stomach means a bad performance.”’
Scheib’s own first performance was memorable: the first state dinner to be given at the White House under the Clinton administration. The occasion honored the emperor and empress of Japan, the first such visit since before World War II.
The menu sums up the new direction sought by Mrs. Clinton and Chef Scheib. It began with an appetizer of seared breast of quail flanked by white corn custard and grilled vegetables in a tomato-cumin sauce, followed by a main course of grilled arctic char, a native fish for the Japanese.
With it came more vegetables: wild mushroom risotto, braised fennel and a vegetable ragout, then a salad of field greens and goat’s cheese baked in filo. Dessert gave more play to America, with a cherry sorbet and almond ice cream served with California cherries and wild strawberry sauce.
Many dishes are contemporary, with an emphasis on light fruit (or vegetable-based) sauces and relishes. Scheib personally develops his own recipes and tastes every dish before it leaves the kitchen.
“I want food to be exuberant in the mouth, alive, with no gratuitous fat and cream,” he says.
In other, more visible ways, Scheib has also succeeded in modernizing the White House table. For example, at all but the most formal occasions, food is served on individual plates rather than presented to each guest by butlers holding platters. (He can choose from a range of presidential dinner services, his favorite being the delicate Roosevelt pattern that features a blue border studded with gold stars, one for each of the states.)
Ingredients come from a wide variety of sources, collected by White House trucks rather than delivered to the mansion.
Health is a concern. The standard White House salad of spring greens is served with a low-fat dressing. The care package sent with Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea on their recent tour of Southeast Asia included dried fruits and whole grain cereals for the whole entourage. “Mrs. Clinton is very sharing,” Scheib says.
However, there are limits to the revolution one chef can achieve.
“I’m following a 200-year-old tradition of state dinners,” Scheib says. “We are entertaining for the nation and must honor a degree of ritual.
“When we have foreign guests, the State Department keeps me posted on dietary constraints. I try to look for a favorite national ingredient - lamb, perhaps - and give it an American-melting-pot twist.”
When I put my head around the door to say goodbye at the end of my visit, the assistant chefs were smiling (only two are on permanent staff but ample free-lance help is called in for state dinners). Requests had come for seconds of salad, and no wonder. From being a secondary player in the nation’s culinary world, today’s White House keeps up with the best.
Grilled Chicken and Sweet Onion with Vegetable Salad In Flat Bread
Large tortillas can be used instead of the lavash bread, or you can fill the salad into pita pockets. This is good served with Lentil Salad and tossed greens with Low-Fat Dressing on the same plate.
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt, black pepper
4 small skinless, boneless chicken breasts
2 sweet onions, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices
8 lavash-style flat breads
8 sprigs cilantro
8 sprigs fresh mint
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Salt, black pepper
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
2 medium mushrooms, sliced
1/2 avocado, sliced
2 medium carrots, julienne cut
3 sticks fresh or canned hearts of palm, drained and sliced
1 bottled roasted red pepper, drained and thinly sliced
To prepare chicken, heat grill or broiler. With rounded end of table knife, crush garlic to paste with salt and pepper. Rub chicken with paste. Grill until no longer pink in center but not dried out, 3 to 5 minutes on each side. Let cool.
Grill onion slices until caramelized and slightly soft, 5 to 7 minutes on each side. When onions are cooked, break slices into rings.
To prepare marinade, mix vinegar, cumin, garlic and salt and pepper to taste in medium bowl. Add tomato, mushrooms, avocado, carrots, hearts of palm and red pepper and mix gently. Add cooked onion rings to vegetables and toss gently again.
Thinly slice cooled chicken breast, cutting across grain and on the bias.
To assemble, lay out lavash breads and cut 8 (6- by 12-inch) rectangles. Place equal amounts of vegetables at one end, spreading vegetables across width of bread. Arrange chicken on vegetables. Top with cilantro and mint. Roll lavash tightly to form rolls 6 inches long and about 1-1/2 inches thick. Slice each roll on bias in 2 different lengths.
On 4 plates, stand 4 different length pieces of roll in “pipe organ” style.
Yield: 4 servings.
If you use canned chicken stock for this recipe, be sure it is without salt.
6 tablespoons chicken stock
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
Salt, black pepper
Mix 1 tablespoon chicken stock with cornstarch until smooth and set aside. Bring remaining stock to boil in small saucepan. Whisk cornstarch mixture into boiling stock (it will thicken at once). Remove from heat and leave to cool to tepid.
Whisk together stock, mustard, lemon juice and vinegar in small bowl. Whisk in garlic, shallot, basil, chives, oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Adjust seasonings.
Yield: Makes enough dressing for 6 to 8 ounces mixed greens, enough for 4 servings.
Pink or orange lentils add color to this salad but brown will do fine, too.
1 cup lentils
1 onion, stuck with a clove
Salt, black pepper
1 small leek, julienne cut
1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/2 jalapeno pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup nonfat mayonnaise
Place lentils, onion and salt and pepper to taste in pan with enough water to generously cover. Simmer, covered, until lentils are tender but still hold their shape, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir occasionally during cooking and add more water if lentils seem dry.
Blanch cut leek in boiling salted water 1 minute. Drain.
Remove onion with clove and drain lentils. Let cool to tepid. Place in bowl along with leek, tomato, jalapeno, orange zest, cilantro, garlic, cumin, coriander, lemon juice, mustard and mayonnaise. Mix gently and taste, adding more jalapeno, spices, salt or pepper to taste.
Yield: 4 servings.
MEMO: Anne Willan is a cookbook author and host of the “Look and Cook” television series.
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