Fast Chat: Home Cooking

Cris Comerford is the first woman to become executive chef at the White House since the Kennedys turned the job into a high-profile statement of personal style. She's also the first Filipino-American to hold the position, becoming a star in Manila and introducing, ever so gently, some new ethnic flavors to the Executive Mansion. Having worked in the White House for 11 years, Comerford is no stranger to the huge range of orders placed on the modest kitchen close to the North Portico--from a light lunch for the First Family to rare state dinners for world leaders, and the more frequent themed events like last week's celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday. She spoke with Richard Wolffe.

WOLFFE: You got your start at the White House as temporary help. What was it like cooking for the president for the first time?

COMERFORD: It was fascinating. First of all, this is a museum, and looking at the plates we used--we had the Reagan china--I thought, "How many diplomats and heads of state had dined off that plate?" That was 1995 and I joined soon after that, full time.

Can you be creative?

You are always evolving. Right now my audience is the First Lady and the First Family, and their guests. It helps to know your audience. Our basic knowledge is French cookery, and afterwards you try to improvise and play jazz and add different ingredients. The availability of products now is wonderful. Even cilantro, 15 years ago you would have a hard time finding it in a supermarket. Now it's in Safeway and Giant.

You added a Filipino touch to the Christmas menu, right?

It was chicken skewers on a bed of jasmine rice. Something simple. But we often look at different ingredients for different events. Let's say we are doing a menu for Italians, then we want to use some products from Italy and cook them in a different fashion.

What flavors or ingredients does the First Family like?

They like ingredients from Texas, and Southwest cooking. They are very simple people to please as long as the food is cooked properly and seasoned well and done in a healthy way.

President Johnson's chef, Henry Haller, hated those Southwestern flavors, especially chili. Do you like that kind of spicy food?

I like all kinds of food.

Have you ever had any disasters?

This is part of your job, to know what they want and know what they like. You try to have zero-percent error. As chefs, if we cook something and at the last minute we find it's too spicy or too sour, we have our own way to fix it. There's nothing we can't fix.

There was some criticism of the president for not entertaining enough in his first term. What's your view?

There's plenty of entertaining going on, and it's intimate enough that you can give it 100 percent of what you can do. It's not mass-producing things.

Is the White House more like a hotel than a restaurant?

Compared to a hotel, we have hotel guests who are here for four years or even eight. You have to make sure every day and every meal and every service rendered is really the best you can offer.