Chatting with Former White House Chef Walter Scheib
I’m gonna start with the moral of the story:
Do what you love to do and share it,
and maybe someone will ask you to do it again.
(Feel free to quote me on that!)
I’m referring to both how I got my most recent gig, and the guy I worked with on said gig. I was acting as the Mistress of Ceremonies for a “State Dinner” with the former White House Chef, Walter Scheib. He loves to cook, I love to communicate, so ….
Getting the Gig (& tying in the moral)
My illustrious career of on-mic gabbing began as an intern at L.A.’s KROQ-FM and when I moved here to Sri Lanka, I did a good number of voice-overs for Young Asia Television. But it was the readings I did at my book launch that made my friend Ajaiy think I might be good compère (or M.C. for the Americans) for his event, Colombo Fashion Week. And it was my 3 years of experience at CFW that made my friend Mahika (PR wiz of the Mount Lavinia Hotel on the outskirts of Colombo) think I’d be good for this event. It really is who you know! But more than that, it’s what’s they know of you.
For Colombo Fashion Week I’m always happily lurking in the background, reading my script in the dark to provide a disembodied, unidentified voice that guides people through the proceedings. But this would be on stage, front and center, and without a script. Luckily, from the videos on his website, TheAmericanChef.com, I knew that Chef Scheib was personable and chatty, so it eased my nerves.
My main job would be to make it more of a conversation than a lecture, keep the conversation going while people enjoyed their 5-course State Dinner, facilitate audience questions and keep the crickets from chirping.
Prepping for the Gig
Mr. Bandara, the GM at Mount Lavinia Hotel, is a personal friend of the Chef’s, and was kind enough to loan me his autographed copy of the Chef’s book called White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen. I’d be able to meet the man himself the day before the event. I’d have just under a week to read the book, and (the more stressful part) make myself presentable for public viewing. (I don’t leave the house much or worry about my appearance when I do, so I wasn’t sure one week would be enough.)
I devoured the book in two days (get it? A food reference!), and I didn’t just skim, I read it for comprehension. I took notes as I went, being the good student that I am, and really enjoyed the process. The recipes sounded so good I wanted to try them…with supervision of course. I have enough of an understanding of my limitations and respect for the alchemy of cooking that I know I really shouldn’t attempt too much myself.
Here are some of the non-food things I learned :
• I had no idea the press cared what was cooked in the White House Chef did, but apparently, they do. He served Arctic Char and sales went up so much that he got a thank you note from Iceland! (Even though he’d served Alaskan Arctic Char.)
• Hillary started a vegetable garden on the White House rooftop and because it was so high up, they had no need for pesticides.
• Chelsea Clinton was a vegan for most of her time in the White House.
• The Chef liked to take advantage of locally grown produce. He mentioned at the dinner when they’re in season and you get them locally, they’re tastier and they’re cheaper! Win win!
• Laura Bush always preferred organic.
• After September 11th (2001) George W. hosted a feast to celebrate the end of the month of Ramadan – a religious observation where Moslems fast during daylight hours. That impressed me.
• I had never really considered the layers of security involved, and the limitations of working in a historical landmark that’s essentially a museum, but he tells how he was able to serve hundreds of people from his 10m x 10m kitchen.
• But since it’s also a household, they had things in place in case the family needed a midnight snack. One holiday, a staff member tried to raid the fridge to use some of the Chef’s delicious eggnog for a staff party. The joke was on him. He served something like omelette batter with onions and pepper to his guests! Yuck!
• For one event, they had Bill Clinton’s ’67 Mustang brought up so he could drive it around the carport. He hadn’t driven for years since he’d become president! (I had a ’66 Mustang, which I wrecked, and then left to my brother to recondition.)
Meeting the Man
He wasn’t hard to spot in the lobby of the hotel. He was dressed in his Chef’s uniform! The chance to talk with him about a variety of subjects over a few hours was great. I even sat in on a newspaper interview. As we walked to the hotel kitchen to take some photos he mentioned that sometimes people on the street recognize him, but sometimes they think he’s actor Steve Carell. I can see it, but I told him I think he looks like actor Bill Pullman. He wasn’t sure who that was. “I think he played the President in Independence Day,” I said. He liked that. After all, our meeting was all about the White House.
Dressing for the Gig
One of the challenges of dressing for the Colombo Fashion Week, even though I’m basically backstage crew, is that there are models and designers around who dress with a sense of fashion and flair I can barely comprehend. So I end up not even trying to play along, but instead refer to my days playing in orchestras and singing in choirs: wear concert black, blend in, look presentable, and wear shoes that won’t fall off.
Here though, I couldn’t fight the perhaps cheesy but patriotic pull to wear red. I haven’t worn red since I was 17 – it’s feels like too much on me, like I’m trying too hard. But I found a dark red dress in my size that made me feel like a sleek Southern Belle who actually has a waist (something the rest of my wardrobe leaves in doubt) at the first place I looked. It was one of 3 dresses they even had available for sale, and it was ½ off. It was meant to be.
I found red strappy 3” spiky heels at the 2nd place I looked. Okay maybe 2-1/2 inches. I don’t wear heels beyond, like, an inch anymore. Flip-flops are my usual shoe of choice. But these had a strap on the heel so they wouldn’t fall off, and I didn’t have a lot of other choices, so… sold!
My hairdresser was a bit shocked at the state of my hair. But after a cut and color, I was like a new woman, and before I left, I made an appointment for a blow dry styling and a pedicure to be done the day of the event. Since I’d be in front of people, on a stage, in open-toed shoes, it seemed the kind thing to do. People would be eating, after all.
“I know you can get the job, but can you DO the job?”
Even once I arrived, I wasn’t really sure exactly what was going to happen, but I felt comfortable winging it. Basically, I’d welcome the folks from the stage, introduce Mahika to talk about the hotel, then introduce the Chef. He’d tell his opening tales, and then while people were eating, I’d follow him around the ballroom and keep a Q & A going. It was actually pretty fun. Oh the power of having a microphone….
Tidbits of talk from that night:
• The Club des Chefs des Chefs - an organization for chefs working for members of a royal family or a head of state, has a motto – and I’m paraphrasing here, “politics divide but food unites.” Nice, huh? If there is no Exec. Chef, the head chef of the hotel used for official functions may join. (Walter got to know fellow club member from Sri Lanka, Rohan Fernandopulle, from The Hilton Colombo).
• His favorite guest was Nelson Mandela, who felt more comfortable with staff members than dignitaries, and exuded peace. He felt similar awe for Mother Theresa, who was there with Princess Diana as part of the anti-landmine campaign. To see them standing next to Hilary Clinton, he thought he must be in the presence of three of the most influential women in the world…
• Nicknames in the White House – the President and First Lady were referred to (though not directly addressed as) Mama and Poppa. George W. called Walter “Cookie”. I said that sounded like something from a wagon train in the old west. Maybe George W. was watching a lot of cowboy movies. Walter said George W. fancied himself a cowboy, so I was probably right.
• We had told the audience that he’d be delighted if someone could surprise him with a question he hadn’t heard. I think because of that, more than half of the tables had someone ask about Monica Lewinsky.
• But I think I got the prize, when I asked him about being asked to serve Rocky Mountain Oysters by the ranch owner who played host in Denver for an event around the G8 Summit.
The Happy Ending(s)?
For the Chef: He now travels the world, sharing his cuisine and experiences.
For The White House: The woman he trained is now the first female White House executive chef. Cristeta Comerford was appointed by Laura Bush and kept on by Michele Obama. And she’s got, as Gourmet Magazine says, “some serious sustainable-food street cred.” And that’s good for America, too.
For me: I know I can do such a thing!
So to bring it home…
Do what you love to do and share it, and maybe someone will ask you to do it again.
(Again, feel free to quote me on that!)