Hunt for White House chef stirs up culinary debate

March 12, 1994|By Rob Kasper and Mary Corey | Rob Kasper and Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writers

As the First Family searches for a new chef, the question of what's cooking in the White House has taken on political as well as culinary implications.

Roughly a year after an elite corps of American chefs began lobbying the president to hire an American chef and serve healthy, environmentally conscious meals, the Clintons are replacing the decades-long tradition of rich French food with the home-grown variety, minus the fat.

The decision has rankled some socialites and diplomats in Washington who already believe the Clinton's down-home style of entertaining isn't appropriate in the protocol-filled nation's capital. They question whether the change reflects the president's true tastes -- or what his handlers believe should be his epicurean image.

Or, to put it another way: Can a man who campaigned with a Big Mac find ultimate happiness with a turkey burger?

"Although the Clintons say they like New American cuisine, their taste buds have been swayed by Bubba Grub: those dishes . . . that are heavy, greasy with lots of salt, sugar and spices," says longtime Washington social observer and columnist Diana McLellan.

"I call it a three-way taste-bud battle. There's French cuisine, nouvelle American and Bubba Grub. They were all on a collision course. And the first casualty was French."

The first human casualty was Pierre Chambrin, the White House executive chef since 1990, who is reportedly packing up his saucepans by the end of this month.

Neel Lattimore, deputy press secretary for Hillary Rodham Clinton, says the White House is looking for someone who can "best showcase" American cuisine, and a new chef is expected to be hired in the next two weeks.

The names of contenders have been appearing and disappearing like daily specials on a restaurant menu. And the professional kitchens of America have been abuzz over who will next wear the toque of White House chef.

At this point, rumors swirl that the short list of insiders includes two Washingtonians: Nora Pouillon, chef and co-owner of Restaurant Nora, and Frank Ruta of the River Club who was the Reagan family chef in the White House.

Although Ms. Pouillon was tight-lipped about whether she had been approached about the job, she noted that the Clintons have been guests at her restaurant, known as a favorite among White House staffers.

So far, however, it hasn't exactly been easy to find someone eager to cook for everything from state dinners to Chelsea Clinton sleep-overs.

One contender who opted out of the race is Patrick Clark of the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington. Considered one of the country's most acclaimed African-American chefs, Mr. Clark, 38, said he recently had a two-hour interview with White House chief usher Gary Walters and Ann Stock, the social secretary there.

"They made me a formal offer, and I declined," he said several days ago.

While he says he was honored by the opportunity, he has a commitment to the hotel and believes it would be difficult to support his five children on the salary offered. Press reports put the salary at nearly $68,000 two years ago.

Larry Forgione, the owner of restaurants in New York and Florida, says he, too, was approached about the job but decided against it because he would have to put his businesses in a blind trust.

Also in the melange are Joyce Goldstein, Hubert Keller and Jean-Marc Fullsack, California-based chefs who have been demonstrating low-fat cooking techniques to the White House staff in recent months. They are devotees of Dr. Dean Ornish, a California heart specialist who reportedly has been working to lower the First Family's cholesterol. He contends that heart disease can be reversed by following by a strict low-fat, no alcohol, vegetarian diet.

Like many American couples, the President and Mrs. Clinton appear to have somewhat different tastes about food. Liza Ashley, who cooked for the Clintons at the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Ark., described Mr. Clinton as an eater who is so enthusiastic about corn bread, baked chicken and chess pie that from time to time his wife "has to kinda quiet him down."

RTC Other chefs, not necessarily front-runners for the post, have still enjoyed the glow of being mentioned as candidates.

For instance, Nancy Longo, owner of Pierpoint restaurant in Fells Point, was on a list of 12 area female chefs sent to the White House by a Washington women's culinary organization, Les Dames D'Escoffier. The list accompanied a letter from the group saying the time had come for a woman to be in charge of the nation's first kitchen.

Ms. Longo says she was flattered by the action but was not waiting to be summoned to the White House.

Ann Amernick, a Baltimore native who was an assistant pastry chef in the Carter-Reagan White House, was also on the list. But Ms. Amernick says that it's unrealistic to include her because she specializes in pastry.

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