A chef's tale of pots, pans and POTUS

Walter Scheib cooked for the Clintons and Bushes.

20080228_inq_fd1filler28z-a
Walter Scheib brought American cooking to the White House in his 11 years as executive chef. His new book tells of his experiences with two presidents and their families.

Walter Scheib was the executive chef for the White House for 11 years. Hillary Clinton hired him during her husband's presidency, and Laura Bush hired him to cook for her and President Bush for four years.

An unassuming, affable man - think Tom Hanks in an apron - Scheib has more than presidential recipes up his sleeve. He's got a few behind-the-White-House-kitchen-door tales to tell, along with a book of recipes and stories - White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen (Wiley).

Scheib has been traveling around the country, serving items from his presidential menus and talking about his stay in the White House.

He was there for the raucous, round-the-clock millennium bash hosted by the Clintons for thousands of all-night partyers. He was there in the somber, curtain-drawn weeks and months after 9/11.

He has met and cooked for world luminaries and dignitaries and has served presidents and kings. Former French President Jacques Chirac once toasted Scheib: "If this is what American food is, I can say I love American food."

Scheib's biggest thrill: meeting and cooking for Nelson Mandela. "He's not bitter or angry, just so tranquil and serene. It's calming just to be in his presence."

In his book, Scheib writes that he once cheered up a Hillary in the doldrums with a platter of sizzling fajitas.

Another time, Scheib whipped up a porterhouse with bearnaise sauce for President Clinton, who was departing from the usual menu while Hillary was out of town. After that, Scheib paid attention to Hillary's travel schedule and shifted Bill's menu to "guy's food" accordingly, serving cheeseburgers and steaks.

Scheib said he saw President Clinton about a year ago, after his heart surgery.

"He leaned over and said, 'Hey, you know, Hill and you were right. I should have listened, and now I've got a 16-inch scar to prove it.' "

One of his fondest memories was when President Clinton was watching the Arkansas Razorbacks on TV and Scheib was called in to help the lonely president cheer on his team.

"He's hooting and hollering - it was great," Scheib said. The president and his family are powerful people, but "they're birds in the cage, too. They rarely get to be off-stage," Scheib said. "They are always looking for some real human interaction."

Scheib also fondly recalls teaching vegan Chelsea Clinton how to cook before she left for college. "'We don't want her to go out to eat every night,' her mother said. At the end of the six-week course, "we presented her with a certificate from the Walter Scheib White House Cooking School."

Both first ladies, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, were more interested in health and nutrition. Laura Bush was wild about organic food. And both first ladies were more adventurous in their culinary tastes than their husbands.

"Both of the presidents - if you'd opened up a burger pit in the basement, they'd be in heaven," Scheib said.

President Bush regularly lunched on peanut butter and honey; bacon, lettuce and tomato; or grilled cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers. And he was very particular about how his hot dogs were cooked, preferring them "baseball-park steamed - not grilled."

Mexican food always was popular in the Bush White House. Nearly every Sunday after church, the Bushes would have huevos rancheros. In fact, shortly after the Bushes moved in, Laura Bush told Scheib she was thrilled to see that the White House chef could make a good enchilada.

Scheib cited several reasons for his departure from the White House. One, he felt he'd done what he wanted and was ready to move on. Two, he clashed with Lea Berman, Laura Bush's new social secretary. Berman had come to the job after serving as Lynn Cheney's social secretary.

Three, first ladies like to leave their mark on the White House kitchen, Scheib said.

"Jackie Kennedy brought French cuisine to the White House. Hillary Clinton hired me to bring American cuisine to the table. And Laura Bush hired the first woman chef for the White House," Cristeta Comerford, whom he had hired as one of his assistants.

"You never assume you're the only person who can do this. You're just the one lucky enough to do it. You check your ego and politics at the door."