When I Grow Up: Commander in Chef

What&s the next best thing to being President? Cooking for him! Meet Walter Scheib, the former White House executive chef for both the Clinton and Bush families.
Feb 06, 2013

Why my job is awesome: The best thing about being a chef is that you get to make people happy. The whole goal of cooking is to give people delicious meals and wonderful food and see them light up and smile. There’s not that many jobs where you get to make people happy. The hardest thing is that it’s really, really long hours. You work anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. It’s physical work; it’s not sitting in the office and answering a phone or working on a computer. You’re physically in there, lifting and moving and working with hot stoves and using sharp knives. It’s a physically daunting job.

An average day on the job: The most important thing to remember when you’re working at the White House is that it isn’t a hotel or restaurant; it’s a private home. It isn’t about anything you can do or your ego or politics, but it’s about giving — in my case — two very high-profile families an island of sanity in a crazy world. When they’re out on stage, which is basically everywhere besides the private residence, they’ve got to be actors. The only time they can be honest and genuinely themselves and just a family is when they’re back at the White House. That’s the goal of all the people who work there. It’s to give them a place that’s safe and fun and more real than being out in the crazy world that the rest of the planet is in. 

How I first became interested: I think some people are born to play football or basketball or music, or write or draw. I think I was born to cook. I’ve been cooking in some respect or interested in kitchens for as long as I can remember — since I was 5 or 6 years old. I started working professionally probably at 14 or 15, working at restaurants. After a year of college I decided I didn’t really want to be in college anymore; I wanted to be a chef. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a young kid. 

My favorite foods: I have all sorts of favorite foods. It’s like asking a musician, “Do you have a favorite kind of music?” There are certain types of food I enjoy more. I like a lot of Asian flavors, whether it’s Indian, Thai, or Malaysian. But I love a great hamburger, too. My thought on good food is big, honest, and fresh flavors. That’s really what it’s all about, whether it’s the right strawberry picked in May or June or something as complicated as a 14-course menu. What it really comes down to is if it really tastes good.

My style of cooking: It’s a very American style of trying all new different types of cuisine. I have over 1500 cookbooks and I like to travel by cooking. If I suddenly wake up one day and feel like I want a taste of Thailand or of Norway or of South Africa, I take out one of my books and open it up, and it really is like an adventure. You can go around the world without leaving your kitchen. My favorite dish is the next one somebody cooks for me. You can’t really give something to someone better than actually taking the time to cook for that person. As I said before, the whole point of cooking is to make someone happy, and if someone cooks for me, they make me happy. I don’t really have a signature dish; I like to try what other people cook for me. 

What’s tough about my job: It’s an exciting and fun job, and people watch a lot of Food Network and they think that’s what the business is about. It’s not at all — it’s a job that’s got to be in your blood and in your heart. You really have to love it, because it’s a hard job in terms of the hours you have to put in. People have to be sure that it’s something they want to do, because it’s not easy. You’re also a performer and part of a team. If you’re not holding up your part of the deal, the other team members will let you know. It’s really important that people understand that it’s a fun and exciting job, but it is a job too — it’s hard work.

Other ways I contribute to the food industry: I’ve been working with Jeff Black, who is the coordinator of the Celebrity Chef Tour events. I’ve probably done six or eight Celebrity Chef Tour events around the country. Jeff and the James Beard Foundation are a tremendous group of individuals trying to promote great American cooking and cuisine and are making sure that these sorts of things are continuing to be publicized across the country so that more and more people will get to know what great food is. It’s fun to get out and do it. The people that come to these dinners are very knowledgeable when it comes to food and wine. They like to hear the stories about the White House, but they also like to eat the White House food. It’s fun that the people are there for a reason: They want to be entertained, and they want to be fed well. I’ve had a great time working with all the folks at the Beard Foundation.

FYI: One of the interesting things that happened when I was at the White House was that Chelsea Clinton became a vegetarian while she was living there. Her senior year of high school, during the summer, she was getting ready to go to Stanford for college. Mrs. Clinton asked if we could teach Chelsea how to cook, because they didn’t want her going out to the dining hall due to the security and too much press around. Chelsea actually spent six weeks with us that summer, probably four or five days a week for four or five hours a day, getting the chance to learn how to cook. At the end of her studies, we gave her a personal chef’s coat and chef’s hat and had the guys in the calligraphy office make a certificate for her. She’s the one and only graduate of the Walter Scheib White House Cooking School.

Visit theamericanchef.com for more information about Chef Walter, as well as cooking tips and recipes.

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