While she seems measured in her every movement in daily life, Chef Cristeta Comerford has quietly shattered quite a few glass ceilings in her professional sphere. The diminutive 54-year-old is the first woman as well as the first person of an ethnic minority to have become the executive chef of the White House, a position she has held since 2005. In that time, she has overseen the culinary affairs of two Obama presidencies as well as most of the second Dubya presidency, catered to the tastes of scores of world leaders and travelled to various countries as a member of Le Club De Chefs Des Chefs, an exclusive circle of chefs to heads of state from around the globe. It is this last which brought her to the Capital for the annual conference held by the group, held in Delhi last week.
The tenth out of a total 11 children, Comerford grew up in Sampaloc, a suburb of Manila, Philippines, in an environment permeated with the sights, smells and sounds of food; sometimes quite literally. Her family had livestock, a paddy field as well as a fish pond and grew up on the kind of organic ingredients that we now spend half our snob budget on. “We had this amazing larder of food outside while, inside our home were many culinary textbooks and guides because my mother loved cooking and was very interested in different techniques,” said Comerford.
Both the inside and the outside left an impression and Comerford gravitated to cooking as a career, pursuing a major in Food Technology at the University of Philippines, Diliman, before an opportunity to work in the US had her flying away half across the world in pursuit of the American Dream without knowing she would come to exemplify it.
As is de rigeur, she had to work her way to the top, earning her spurs at the Sheraton hotel right next to Chicago’s O Hare International Airport from where a certain Barack Obama would be regularly flying in and out of as a law professor and subsequent senator. Comerford’s road to the White House was almost as rigorous; she continued to hone her classical French training in cooking while opening up to all the weird and wonderful flavours that melted into Americana. The Filipino-origin chef of French cuisine ended up marrying John Comerford, an American chef of Irish origin, with the couple ending up in Washington DC. “Walter (Scheib, former White House Executive Chef) would ask me to come in and help at the White House during state functions and in ’95, I joined the staff permanently as Sous Chef during the Clinton presidency,” she said.
When Scheib hung up his toque in 2005, apart from a small pool of internal candidates (basically Comerford), there were 450 applicants for the job. Comerford came in the top 10 and, after a cook-off against her competition, walked back into the White House kitchen and the history books.
Much of that history, and indeed, present must remain redacted due to strict non-disclosure clauses but Comerford can reveal she works in tandem with the State Department to organise state banquets, satisfy the epicurean whims of various dignitaries and avoid any international incidents caused by anything served at the White House or any of its catered events.
While she has to command a legion of cooks hired by occasion for special functions, a permanent team of only seven chefs caters to all the needs of the First Family, as well as the White House Staff. Her hourly commute from her home in Maryland to the Capitol is then a time to decompress as well as brainstorm, both of which her husband and, now, daughter help with.
Unfortunately, due to her confidentiality clauses, our final question on her professional opinion on Trump Steaks, a brand of steaks owned by Donald Trump, remains unanswered.
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