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A meal fit for a president

By Ye Jun | China Daily | Updated: 2011-09-10 15:44

A meal fit for a president

A dish made by Walter Scheib, former executive chef at the White House, at a dinner at the Capital Club in Beijing on Sept 2.

A meal fit for a president

Walter Scheib, who served as executive chef at the White House from 1994 to 2005, at a signing ceremony for his autobiography in Beijing on Sept 2. Ye Jun / China Daily

Former White House executive chef Walter Scheib recently visited Beijing, where he shared his experiences of cooking for two US presidents, Ye Jun reports.

US chef Walter Scheib, dubbed the "White House chef", says he was struck by the sheer size and modernity of Beijing, during his recent visit to the Chinese capital. "When I see Beijing, it's unbelievable, so big, modern, and cosmopolitan. You judge a country by its people. Everybody has been very nice, friendly and respectful. I had a great time."

Scheib worked as executive chef at the White House for two US presidents - Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from 1994 to 2005. He was invited by Beijing's Capital Club to prepare a dinner for its members on Sept 2. After that he spent the weekend in Beijing.

Hired by Hillary Clinton to revolutionize the culinary program at the White House, Walter brought artisanal products from all over the country, started a herb garden on the roof, and retrained the staff. Prior to the Beijing dinner, he shared some of his stories with the local media about working at the White House, besides autographing his book White House Chef for diners.

Scheib says he didn't know what the criteria were to choose a White House chef, but he considered himself lucky, because he was chosen from 4,000 candidates.

Scheib thinks the most important things he did at the White House were getting to know the two presidents and bringing contemporary US cuisine to the White House.

"Before I came, food at the White House was not really American, but primarily European, primarily French," he says. "But America has developed its own style of cuisine based on big flavors, regional influences and ethnic overtones. And Mrs Clinton asked me to bring this new American cuisine to the White House."

The chef said that 35 years ago, traditional American food was very country style, just simple foods like pork, beef, hamburger and chicken. But since then, a lot of foreign cultures came in, bringing their respective influences. Before there were mostly French, Chinese, or Italian restaurants, but now there are up to 70 or 80 cuisines.

"Think of American cuisine as jazz, not classical music any more, very funky, very happy, a party in your mouth," he says. "Food is people. American cuisine is friendly and happy."

Scheib says the job at the White House gave him the chance to change the cuisine there, giving it a much more personal style, very much about the food, and less about the formality.

"But the most interesting thing was not to cook, but to get to know the two first families as real people, not as cartoon characters, or people on TV," he says.

Scheib would not talk about the presidents' favorite foods, "because there is a risk he'll be eating that for the rest of his life".

"President Reagan made a mistake by saying that he liked eating jelly beans, and he was offered them wherever he went ever since," he says.

The chef said the two first ladies, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, were both very much into big flavors, fresh food, organic food, a lot of spice, and many ethnic influences.

The chef considered cooking for the first ladies "challenging". But serving the presidents was another story.

"If you had something very good and they like a lot, if you want to make it perfect, very easy - two pieces of bacon, melt some cheese, and victory is mine."

Both first ladies liked desserts very much. But sometimes they were often on a diet, so they gave him diet books, in which they marked out what they wanted him to make.

The chef would go to a doctor to confirm the diet was healthy. Then he would go on the same diet to see how it works.

"Mrs Clinton came to me about 6 or 7 weeks after one of her diets, and said, 'Walter, I'm not losing any weight on this diet you have me on.' I told her 'it's your book, and I lost 9 pounds'. She laughed, she said, 'ok, we need to take the chocolate cake from the refrigerator upstairs'."

The arrival of children always brightened up the White House. Chelsea Clinton actually spent six weeks with Scheib in a summer, learning to cook.

"She was a very good chef. She's also a vegetarian so I taught only vegetarian styles to her," he says.

Scheib says the most unique guest he entertained at all the state dinners was Nelson Mandela.

"When he came, he wanted to speak to the workers," he recalls. "He was very modest."

At the dinner Scheib prepared in Beijing, the chef prepared roast beet salad, a simple but tasty salad Laura Bush used to have. It was followed by a sweet corn and crab soup, which Walter often cooked at Camp David. The main course was fennel crusted lamb chops, a favorite of Hillary Clinton's.

"Both first ladies loved healthy, organic foods, but their only difference was meat," says the chef. "Mrs Bush is from Texas, and always preferred beef. But Mrs Clinton loves lamb. There will always be at least 50 percent vegetables in the main course."

After he left the White House, he started his own company, The American Chef, which does entertaining, food consulting, and product development.

Scheib was born in California, but now lives in Washington DC.

"I started cooking at the age of 15, with a lot of influence from my mom, who cooks not just American food, but Oriental and European-style foods, which she learns from books," he says. "I know it's a clich to say my mom taught me cooking. But she really did."

Scheib says he takes a little from every destination he travels to.

"My mentor is 1,000 small chefs that cook with heart, but not ego," he says. "The best thing about cooking is not vanity, but to give something to somebody else."

During the two days Scheib stayed in Beijing, he went to the Great Wall, which he thinks is "amazing", and visited a local seafood market, where he found more than 200 varieties, noting that it was "almost like an aquarium".

He also visited Donghuamen evening food market, to see scorpions, lizards, and silkworms, ate dumplings and pig ears at Goubuli steamed buns restaurant, and tried foods at Maison Boulud, and Le Quai.

"A great variety of wonderful flavors, simple preparations, and delicious food," he says. "For me, the best part is sitting next to the real people. I can tell from the foods that it's an ancient country with many rituals."

Scheib thinks food will boost exchanges and understanding between Chinese and US people, because it will help people overcome preconceived ideas.

"To the Chinese, America might be hot dogs, apple pie and Big Macs. But although they are part of the deal, so is great Napa Valley food, so is great Washington seafood," he says.

The chef says it is the same for Americans, to whom China is chop suey.

"But when you step back and see the whole picture, it's a mosaic, not just dumplings and shark fin," says Scheib. "Politicians divide, but tables unite. People might shout and yell at a business meeting, but when they sit down to eat, they become more civilized."

The chef says it would not be his last visit to China.

"We already talk about next year," he says.

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