White House hearing from cooks who can stand the heat, want to get into the kitchen

Wednesday, February 16th 2005, 1:24 pm

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Avocado and heirloom tomato salad beneath a spicy, toasted cumin dressing. Tiny bay scallops, lightly caramelized, folded into a risotto and served with lobster sauce. A roasted rack of lamb. A chef who can pull this off just might have a future in the White House kitchen.

The search is on for a White House chef who can do it all, from simple munchies for the president to elaborate state dinners featuring America's best.

After nearly 11 years of cooking for two presidents, chef Walter Scheib III has left the kitchen at America's most famous house to pursue new opportunities.

The White House needs a flexible kitchen wizard capable of whipping up everything from a simple sandwich _ President Bush is partial to peanut butter and jelly _ to fancy menus that titillate the taste buds of the dozens who attend its glamorous receptions and state dinners, say those in the know.

Other likely ingredients for the new head cook: a thorough knowledge of American cuisine and international tastes, and a personality that can stand the pressure cooker.

``It shouldn't be someone that's pulling things out of cans,'' said Robert Wiedmaier, chef and owner of Marcel's, a French-Belgian restaurant just blocks from the White House.

Sara Moulton, executive chef at Gourmet magazine and host of ``Sara's Secrets'' on the Food Network, said the job is an ``awesome responsibility'' and, for the new chef, the ``single most important thing is that you be completely adaptable and completely versatile.''

He (there's never been a ``she'' White House chef), after all, has many palates to please _ from the president and first lady, sometimes with differing food tastes, to their children, their children's friends and guests including bureaucrats, family and friends, lawmakers and foreign dignitaries.

Besides preparing mouthwatering meals, the chef should have a good personality, be good with people and budgets, and be versed in international cuisine, said Letitia Baldrige, who was social secretary in the Kennedy White House.

``It's a very complicated job and it's 24 hours a day,'' she said.

Edward Leonard, president of the American Culinary Federation, a professional organization for U.S. chefs, said: ``Being a good cook is part of it, but without those other skills I think they would fail.''

Hillary Rodham Clinton hired Scheib, a California native and graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, in April 1994 because she wanted to feature American cuisine after years of French cooking at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., ushered in by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Scheib, formerly the executive chef at the upscale Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, is known for a cooking style that emphasizes regional American and ethnic tastes.

``Walter made it decidedly American,'' said Tim Ryan, president of the culinary institute, of White House cuisine under Scheib. ``He delivered an excellent level of quality.''

Scheib, who did not return a telephone message seeking comment left at his Virginia home, has spoken publicly of the difficulty he had trying to satisfy the tastes of first lady Laura Bush.

White House chief usher Gary Walters is leading the search for someone to fill Scheib's toque, the traditional chef's hat.

``The White House is being lobbied as it's never been lobbied before on any bill,'' Baldrige supposed.

Scheib's departure is the latest in a recent flurry of staff changes by the first lady.

Mrs. Bush hired a new pastry chef to replace the acclaimed Roland Mesnier, who retired last year after 25 years of dessert-making for five presidents. She replaced her chief of staff, the previous one had served her for 10 years, and hired a new social secretary, the wife of a major Bush fund-raiser.

Unlike Mrs. Kennedy, Baldrige said, Mrs. Bush won't be at a loss to find a good chef because of the many fine restaurants and hotels around the country, where previous White House chefs came from.

``When we were looking for a chef there were very few places to look,'' Baldrige said. ``She will be confronted with an embarrassment of riches.''

While being executive chef at the White House has its share of prestige, the job also carries a fair amount of drudgery. A steady stream of guests, as many as 2,000 per month, are fed there, and Mrs. Bush has signaled her intent to do more entertaining than in the post-Sept. 11 first term.

Whoever ends up doing the cooking should be thankful. During President Grant's administration, dinners consisted of a whopping 29 courses, according to a book on White House entertaining by Mrs. Clinton. The number of courses was pared to four by Mrs. Kennedy _ and remains.

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