Admirers dish about White House chef

Comerford's `passion for cooking,' low-key nature are noted

August 16, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Perhaps it was the delicacy of her chilled asparagus soup, or the way she paired the halibut with a dish of basmati rice, pistachio nuts and currants.

Whatever it was, when assistant White House chef Cristeta Comerford triumphed with her White House dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month, she also aced the final test in the competition to be the country's next first chef. Her appointment was officially announced Sunday, making her the first woman to hold the position.

She certainly impressed her new boss, Laura Bush. In a statement about the chef from Columbia, the first lady said: "Her passion for cooking can be tasted in every bite of her delicious creations."

Vacationing with her family, Comerford could not be reached for comment on her new job. But colleagues, neighbors and admirers of the 42-year-old chef were eager to speak about her hard-earned achievement -- and what it means to women.

"What's really so significant about this is that it provides young women with a great role model of someone who has made it to a top job," says Bonnie Moore of the national group Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. (A national organization with 2,300 members, WCR was founded 12 years ago to advance women in the restaurant industry.)

"Women make up more than 50 percent of the work force in the food-service business, but only 4 percent get the big clout jobs," Moore says.

She's also delighted that Comerford, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines, is the first minority to hold the post, that she is a working mother, and that she was promoted after working as an assistant White House chef for 10 years.

But no one sounds more pleased than Walter Scheib, the man Comerford replaced.

Scheib hired Comerford in 1995, shortly after coming to work in the Clinton White House. At the time, she had a degree in food technology from the Philippines and an impressive work record earned at restaurants in Washington and Vienna, Austria. She continued to excel at the White House; Scheib says he treasured her ability to "not only make things taste great, but look great as well" and considered her his "co-chef" for their last few years together.

Scheib was dismissed last February when Laura Bush decided to select her own chef.

"I was thrilled to see Mrs. Bush recognized her talents and skills," he says. "Cris knows how the house operates and that's no small feat to understand the procedures."

The White House kitchen gets going about 4:15 a.m. every day -- an hour before the president rises -- and staff members remain until 9 or 10 at night unless there's a special dinner, Scheib says. The executive chef oversees several full-time employees and a larger work force for such special occasions as state dinners.

"Cris is an extremely calm individual, very low key and very good with other people," he says. "She has her standards -- and certainly has them lived up to. But she's not one of those cartoon characters screaming and yelling and throwing pots. She's very professional in her demeanor."

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the job, he notes, is interpreting and demonstrating the style and taste of the first lady.

Of the hundreds of applicants for that position, Comerford had already proved her abilities.

"Cris was certainly someone who had worked in the kitchen for 10 years. Not only was she the most qualified candidate but someone Mrs. Bush had a comfort level with. She knew what she was capable of," says Susan Whitson, Laura Bush's press secretary.

"First and foremost, she was qualified to be able to do the work of a White House chef: Preparing meals for hundreds, even thousands of people, as well as preparing meals for the first family."

When she's not cooking meals for the president, Comerford lives with her husband and daughter in Ecker's Hollow, a recently built development of single-family homes in Columbia, near Oakland Mills village.

In the cluster of Colonial-style homes, Comerford can often be seen washing her Volvo, according to neighbor Lorenzo Hester.

Her next-door neighbor Marjorie Peart says she's proud to have a new celebrity on the block.

Peart can also report first-hand on the chef's culinary prowess: She feasted on steak with mushrooms and a Filipino rice dish at the chef's house last spring.

"It was fantastic," she says.

Although Comerford is the first woman to hold the title of White House executive chef -- the post dates to 1961 when Jacqueline Kennedy hired French chef Rene Verdon -- she may not be the first female to run the White House kitchen.

Before the Kennedy administration, many presidents brought their own cooks with them to the White House -- and it is believed some of these "head cooks" were women, says White House curator William Allman.

These days, women make up almost half of the students enrolled in the nation's culinary schools, says Dorothy Hamilton, founder and CEO of the French Culinary Institute in New York.

She's delighted to see a woman as "commander-in-chief" of "the first kitchen."

"What you mostly need to be an executive chef is stamina," she says. "It's a tough job and long hours. If you don't love to nurture people, this isn't the job for you. It's not just about chemistry or cooking, it's about nurturing."

Baltimore restaurateur Sascha Wolhandler, owner of Sascha's catering and Sascha's 527 Restaurant, is thrilled to see a fellow female chef "break through."

"If we've missed getting a woman in the Supreme Court in this administration, at least we've got one in the Supreme Kitchen," she says.

Sun staff writer Laura Cadiz contributed to this article.

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