Mum's the word for chefs of chiefs Visitors: Prestigious cooks have brunch in Baltimore, but refuse to talk with or without their mouths full.

August 09, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

In Washington, a city of gossip hounds, ego maniacs, gabbers and grandstanders, Walter Scheib stands apart. He's the White House chef, and he's not talking.

Not about what President Clinton eats for dinner, whether he snacks late at night or puts hot sauce on his scrambled eggs. Scheib allows that he prepared a meal for Hillary Rodham Clinton as a tryout for the job, but he won't say what he cooked.

Pentagon and State Department officials may leak to journalists daily about U.S. defense and foreign policy, but when it comes to details of the president's eating habits, no reporter gets a crumb.

"The No. 1 job is discretion for the privacy of the family," says Scheib, 42, a serious man in tortoise-shell eyeglasses. "We're all pretty discreet about what our bosses do and don't do."

"We" would be members of the Club des Chefs des Chefs. It sounds redundant because it translates loosely to a club of chiefs of cooking who work for chiefs of state. To become a member you have to be head chef for, say, a president, a queen, king or sultan.

To stay a member, you have to say as little as possible about your boss.

Every year since the club was formed in 1977, its members have convened to eat and talk -- with utmost circumspection -- in a different country. This year the gathering is in the United States, a movable five-day feast with stops in Washington, Baltimore and San Francisco.

About 40 chefs in full executive regalia made a thicket of white toques as they converged on the second-floor ballroom of the Harbor Court Hotel in Baltimore for brunch yesterday.

They came from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom. They sipped champagne and Chardonnay and dined on a menu fashioned to highlight Maryland's best seasonal foods. The gourmet fare included rockfish with corn relish, sauteed soft-shelled crabs, crab cakes and fresh tomatoes marinated in olive oil and basil.

Imagine being Harbor Court Hotel executive chef Holly Forbes on this day, the chef au chefs de chefs.

"It's like walking into your piano lesson and Beethoven is your teacher for the day," Forbes told the gathering. She was up at 3 a.m. Couldn't get back to sleep. Was in the Harbor Court kitchen by 5: 30 a.m. preparing breakfast tortes.

"I was a little nervous," Forbes says after brunch and the chefs des chefs have departed for National Airport and a flight to San Francisco. "You always get nervous because it's food, and it's the human element. It's never 100 percent predictable."

One could predict this: nobody was giving away secrets. Even among themselves, says Scheib, who is official host of this year's gathering, the chefs are cautious.

During the course of the visit to Washington, tenacious journalists did manage to unearth a few nuggets of fascinating information: Iceland's president always eats fish for lunch; Finland's president and his wife often snack on fruit, celery and ,, carrots; Denmark's queen likes Japanese food.

Henry Haller is somewhat freer to talk, having retired as a White House chef in 1987. For two decades he commanded the kitchen for Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

It was Haller who, 22 years ago today, prepared Nixon's last breakfast the day he resigned the presidency. Yes, he remembers. Yes, he can say: corned-beef hash with poached eggs and coffee. In the west hall on the second floor of the White House that morning, Nixon ate alone.

"We could feel the pressure and tension, no doubt about it," says Haller, who has published a White House cookbook and a series of instructional videos on preparing selected presidential meals.

Scheib reveals only that Hillary Clinton has instructed him to lean toward low-fat meals with lots of fresh seasonal foods and fresh vegetables. He says she's an "adventurous diner" who likes "intensely flavored dinners."

He divulges no more detail than that. We know President Clinton's preference in underwear, but not in meat and potatoes.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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