History is being made in the White House. For the first time, the most important kitchen in America is being run by two women: executive chef Cristeta Comerford and executive pastry chef Susan Morrison.
In their roles, chefs Comerford and Morrison are responsible for managing the many White House kitchens, and preparing all menus and meals for the First Family, which includes private meals and events, and official state functions.
However, because of COVID-19, the chefs have been cooking almost exclusively for only the President and First Lady — who list “pasta with sauce” among their favorite meals. This is a significant departure for a kitchen and acclaimed staff that are capable of serving hundreds of dinner guests and hors d’oeuvres to more than 1,000. And, arguably, a waste of their talents.
One of the things that sets the White House chef job apart from any other is the state dinner. These events have been a staple of American diplomacy since 1874, and are only put on for only a fraction of world leaders. They have been used to demonstrate America’s commitment to our allies, navigate delicate relationships, or even strategize in times of war. No matter the reason, pageantry is always the point.
For example, the Obamas first state dinner was held in 2009 for the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Chefs created a five-course menu with wine pairings that featured dishes like roasted potato dumplings and green curry prawns. The price tag for the evening was $572,187, or roughly $1,700 per plate, and was one of the most expensive functions of the Obama administration.
Let’s, for a moment, remove the pomp and circumstance that comes with “the White House,” and instead think of it as a restaurant and event hall. Like any venue, being the executive chef of this kitchen has its challenges.
For example, the day-to-day menus are dictated by the tastes of the family in residence. President Trump, for example, was infamous for his limited palate and preference for fast food. Similarly, as the President’s family foots the bill for groceries and private parties, chefs may also find themselves at the mercy of how much they are willing to spend. This can certainly stifle a chef’s creativity.
While the tenures of many White House kitchen employees have expanded across multiple administrations, job security is not guaranteed. A President can bring in their own chef, or personalities may not be compatible.
Compensation must also be considered. White House chefs, who are government employees, receive a salary of $80,000-$100,000. (Significantly higher than the average US chef, who makes $52,160.) Though it goes without saying that these paychecks are hard earned.
But, we are also living in a new era of celebrity chefs, where one can leverage their culinary gifts to vast fame and fortune, or even invitations to do cameos in the White House kitchen. Chef Cormerford has already done one episode of Iron Chef America and was an integral part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign — elevating her profile higher than any of her predecessors.
For those who are calling for pity for the White House chefs as the pandemic continues to limit their kitchen, I agree. But I would also argue that we should be extending compassion to every chef. In the US, more than 10% of restaurants permanently closed during the first year of COVID-19. Even now, as food and beverage spending is rising, restaurants and bars are seeing smaller gains.
However, the kitchen in the White House is still open for business, with very loyal diners. And I commend the chefs who are keeping it running.
Danilo Diazgranados is an independent investor in the global food and wine, financial services, real estate, and the hospitality sectors.