Chef John Moeller Talks About Life At The Dinner Table With President George H.W. Bush

By JENNIFER KOPF

When you’re the president, you’re surrounded by an ever-narrowing circle of people who connect with you on a daily basis.

There’s the public. Other elected officials. Your advisers. Others who work in the White House. People who spend their careers caring for the White House operation itself, watching administrations come and go. There’s the Secret Service detail who follows the first family everywhere.

But on the second floor of the White House, where the presidential family resides, the circle shrinks to a very select few who interact with the president without a buffer — preparing meals, serving the family and making sure 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. feels, as much as possible, like a home.

That’s where chef John Moeller spent 1992 to 2005, serving presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Moeller, a native of Lancaster, wrote about his singular experience in 2013’s “Dining at the White House: From the President’s Table to Yours.” Since then, he has operated State of Affairs Catering in Lancaster and, earlier this year, bought the Greenfield Restaurant and Bar with wife Suryati.

Earlier this week, we talked to Moeller about his experiences with the elder Bush, who died last week at 94 and whose state funeral will be held today.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you remember the moment you met President and Mrs. Bush? How did your relationship change with them while he was in office?

The first person I met in the first family was the first lady. On the day I was able to cook for her for the first time, it was kind of a fun interaction. I got (lunch) all put together, and I was just thinking, I’m on the second floor (which is the first family’s private White House quarters) for the first time, serving the first lady for the first time. I was a little floored, to say the least. The butler came back in the kitchen and said, “The first lady wants to see (you),” and I kind of froze. I looked to the (executive) chef, Pierre (Chambrin), who hired me, and he said, “Well you can’t keep her waiting, go in there!”

So I went in, and at the head of the table was that iconic figure you’d see in the media every day, and she looked up at me and said, “Oh, John, so you’re one of our new chefs here … welcome to the White House.”

In the next day or so, the president was coming in to go up to the second floor (through the) South Portico and take the elevator upstairs. The usher told me to stand there so I could be introduced.

Bush said, “Who do we have here? Welcome to the White House, I’m looking forward to trying your food.”

As a White House chef, you have a great deal of access in an unsupervised way to the first family — you’re working directly in the private residence.

The second-floor kitchen (where final food preparation is handled) is no bigger than the average kitchen. The ground-floor kitchen is where the hard preparation gets done. For service, we take it up to the second floor and set up shop.

There was a little pantry, and they have (a selection of dishware) of all the administrations going back about a hundred years or so. So you’d be, “Oh, there are two people tonight, let’s use the Roosevelt today or the Wilson or whatever, depending on the (food) presentation.

So while you’re up there, the butler’s with me, serving them, maids are milling around doing their thing, (but) there’s no Secret Service agent in my kitchen watching what I’m doing. They’re not standing around the dining room watching (the first family) eat dinner.

We’re taking care of them on a very personal basis. Every day. And you get a chance to see them in a completely different light than everyone else (does). You get to know them as people.

If Bush went to the family vacation house in Kennebunkport, Maine, say, would he bring back seafood, for example, because he really missed it?

One of the most special things he used to love from Texas that would be shipped up to us was Blue Bell (brand) vanilla ice cream. You know, the pastry chef would leave desserts for the evening. (But) once in a while, President Bush, he’d call down to the kitchen and say, “Hey, give me some of that Blue Bell!”

You’ve said that, of the presidents you worked for, President Bush had a pretty adventurous palate — despite his well-known dislike of broccoli.

He was very well-traveled. Lots of different foods, lots of different meats, yes.

Was there ever a meal new to them that they’d say, that was fantastic — put that in the regular menu rotation?

One night, I thought I’d give him an Asian-style meal. I thought, you know, he was in (the People’s Republic of) China for a while (heading the U.S. Liaison Office during a period when America did not maintain diplomatic ambassadorships there), so I didn’t do real sushi but, like, California rolls, teriyaki salmon and then some nice vegetables, some jasmine rice. And we had these wooden (platters), so we got the rolls all set, and there’s the ginger and the wasabi.

Now, every night he’d have a cup of coffee after dinner. Every single night. That night, I had some really good green tea, so I told the butler to offer him the tea. And (the butler) said, “No, no no!” (And I said), “Will you at least offer it?” So after it was completed, (Bush) came back and shook my hand and said, “John, in the four years I’ve been here, I’ve never had a meal like that. That was wonderful.” He loved it.

Did you have a conversation with him that really sums up his personality for you?

He was not a pretentious guy … and you could feel very comfortable with him after the initial meeting.

Did you ever have a chance to see him after he left office?

When his son became president, of course, we did have the chance to interact several times then. And when his library opened, we went down to College Station, (Texas). He gave us a personal tour of his property. It was a cool thing. And he said, “That’s where we’re gonna be one day.” Because that’s where his (final) resting place will be. (Barbara) already is there, and in the next day or so he will be, too.

This article provided by NewsEdge.