From 1994 to 2005, Walter Scheib ran the kitchen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, preparing both everyday meals for the Clinton and Bush families as well as elaborate menus for state dinners. In January, he published White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen—a book of stories and recipes from his tenure.
Despite stints cooking in West Virginia (at the Greenbrier Resort) and Florida (at the Boca Raton Resort and Club), Scheib considers himself a lifelong Washingtonian—his family moved to the area when he was a year old. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1979, he started his career in the kitchen of the Hilton at 16th and K streets. Scheib now lives in Great Falls with his wife, also a chef, and their two sons. He stays busy giving speeches, planning special events, and consulting through his company, the American Chef. He recently took a break to talk about his own food favorites, and also shared some from the first families he served.
All-time favorite meal: I was on the opening crew of Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Monaco. My wife and I had a meal at Chateau d’Eze, it’s a little fortress town, built 1,000 meters above the Mediterranean. I remember looking out one of the little windows down at the water below and thinking, ‘I feel like I'm in a Cezanne painting.’ I don’t even remember what we had, but that was the most memorable meal. That’s my thought on dining in general—while food and preparation is a major part of dining, more often than not it’s who you were with and where that you remember.
Favorite local restaurant: We’ve been going to Restaurant Nora for 25 years. We also enjoy Todd Grey’s Equinox. I enjoy simple fish preparations, like at Pesce in Dupont Circle. And also small ethnic restaurants—we’ll travel around to suburban places to find little interesting ethnic places, they might do one or two dishes really, really well.
Favorite cookbook: I have 1,500 cookbooks in my library, and I read them avidly. One I really enjoy is Big Flavors of the Hot Sun, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby. It’s very obscure, fresh, light, delicious, off-the-wall stuff.
Favorite course (of a meal): I’d rather have a whole bunch of small first courses. Chefs tend to put a lot more creativity in those. I have no problem with ordering three first courses and making a meal of them.
You’re a fisherman. What’s your favorite kind of fish?: I’d rather fish than breathe. It’s whatever’s biting, in the DC area, it’s all small mouth bass.
Favorite comfort food: My mom is from Newfoundland, Canada where they do lots of root vegetables. I love her mashed parsnips, turnips, and carrots.
Favorite junk food: I’m not big on that. I do eat almonds by the handful.
Favorite dessert: Anything not-chocolate. I love fruit-based desserts, a tarte tatin, a poached pear, or something along those lines.
Favorite vegetable: I really enjoy them all. That sounds trite. When people say they don’t like vegetables, they really just don't like the way their mother used to prepare them.
Least favorite food: I don’t like bizarre food. If there’s something on the menu I’ve never had before, I’ll always order it—recently it was fried jellyfish on a Chinese menu. I ate beetles in South Africa. But those sorts of things never really live up. "Fear Factor" dining doesn’t do anything for me.
Favorite sandwich: I do love a good hamburger. I worked with the Clintons and Bushes, and you learn to make a hell of a hamburger working for those guys.
Favorite meal you cooked at the White House: On the personal end, cooking for the family, even just a bowl of oatmeal, was a big honor. Professionally, the most amusing was when Jacques Chirac was coming for a state dinner. The press was building it up, saying that Hillary Clinton had thrown French food out of the White House. Mrs. Clinton called me up and said, "This is an important one, don’t screw it up!" Not her exact words, of course. At the beginning of the meal, President Clinton gave his toast and mentioned the all-American menu from our all-American chef. At the end of the meal, Chirac toasted and said something like, "I’m French and I love French cuisine, but if this is American cuisine I can say I also love American cuisine."
What dishes did you prepare most frequently?: After church on Sundays, the Bushes love huevos rancheros with fresh tortillas, red beans, and rice.
Any memorable requests?: At holiday times, they wanted a lot of very old-fashioned things. Mrs. Clinton at Thanksgiving said she had to have her Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing.
What were some favorite foods of the first families?: It’s funny, tastes were divided along gender lines, not party lines. Both first ladies had eclectic, adventurous tastes, and were very into fresh, organic, and healthy. Mrs. Bush was adamant about organics being used, which may come as a surprise to some people. Both first ladies were very much the driving force behind the cuisine. Both presidents would have been happy with a barbecue joint in the basement.