- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

The temperature is rising in Cristeta Comerford’s basement kitchen. After two months on the job and plenty of meals served behind the scenes, the first female White House executive chef makes her official culinary debut in a public way today: preparing lunch and three dinner courses for Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

It’s the couple’s first visit to the United States since tying the knot in April.

But if pleasing the royal couple isn’t pressure enough, next on Mrs. Comerford’s plate is the December holiday season. That is when President Bush and first lady Laura Bush throw open the White House doors to about 9,500 guests who file through 25 parties in search of some of the finest food and drink in town.

Other cooks may wilt like spinach under the stress, but Mrs. Comerford is no stranger to the heat of the White House kitchen. She has been slicing and dicing there for 10 years, assembling meals big and small as an assistant to executive chef Walter Scheib III, who hired her as a part-timer in 1995.

In fact, Mrs. Comerford gets credit for two recent White House dinners.

One menu of chilled asparagus soup with lemon creme, pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants, and herbed summer vegetables was served to 134 guests at an official dinner in July in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It helped Mrs. Comerford clinch the promotion.

With such experience under her apron, dinner for the royals “should be, in many respects, old hat,” said Mr. Scheib, whose exit from the kitchen in February after 11 years of cooking for two presidents cleared the way for Mrs. Comerford’s appointment by Mrs. Bush.

“She is one of the best chefs culinarily that I’ve ever worked with,” Mr. Scheib said, describing Mrs. Comerford as “basically a co-chef with me. Her input and her menus were used as often as not.”

Roland Mesnier, a former White House pastry chef, said Mrs. Comerford was “extremely knowledgeable” about the cuisines of different cultures. That “helps tremendously when you’re the chef of the White House” and feeding many foreign visitors, he said.

In her statement announcing the promotion in August, Mrs. Bush said Mrs. Comerford’s “passion for cooking can be tasted in every bite of her delicious creations.”

Besides being the first female White House chef and personal cook for the first family, Mrs. Comerford, 43, is the first minority in the position. She is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines who studied French cooking in Vienna, Austria, and specializes in ethnic and American cuisine.

For a May 2003 state dinner for the Philippine president, Mrs. Comerford planned a meal with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s tastes in mind: scallops, brandade of smoked trout and crab cakes with tomato gazpacho; lamb in a red wine reduction with achiote polenta, fresh fava beans, morels and braised cipollini onion; and avocado, tomato and goat’s cheese terrine, spring greens, candied pepitas and calamansi dressing.

Pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, are popular in Mexican cooking; calamansi is a citrus fruit native to the Philippines.

The appointment of a woman was strongly encouraged by Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, an advocacy group. Women represent half of all food service workers but just 7 percent of executive chefs, said President Bonnie Moore. Even fewer women hold the “clout” jobs, such as White House chef.

Mrs. Comerford’s appointment “is exactly what young women thinking of a career in the culinary arts need set as an example before them,” Miss Moore said.

Mrs. Comerford now has the prestigious yet grueling responsibility of pleasing the palates of some of the world’s most powerful, and perhaps finicky, eaters. She will design menus for events ranging from state dinners and other official functions, where the guest list can soar into the hundreds, to cozier gatherings hosted by the president and the first lady. The job pays $80,000 to $100,000 a year.

“It’s God sent,” Mrs. Comerford told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in August. “I mean, how many people are chosen, are called to serve … to cook for basically the No. 1 person in the world?”

Mrs. Comerford has to cook for a lot of other VIPs too. Charles is an avid organic farmer — even his wedding cake, a one-layer fruitcake, was organic — so she could go that route for dinner.

Once the prince and duchess have been served — preparations for the meal began several months ago — Mrs. Comerford will turn her attention to the holidays and such “must-do” items as ensuring she has lined up enough extra staff, equipment and, most importantly, food to feed the masses.

The White House kitchen feeds about 2,000 dinner and reception guests every month. But the figure grows almost fivefold in December, when workdays of 16 to 18 hours become the norm for the staff.

Mrs. Comerford already has begun to plan menus and hold tastings for holiday meals, “so she is definitely multitasking,” said Susan Whitson, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Bush.

Mr. Mesnier said holiday planning is as, if not more, important as the cooking itself.

“If you don’t plan well, then in the middle of the holiday what’s going to happen?” Mr. Mesnier said. “You’re going to run out of food.”

For the White House chef, Mr. Scheib said, nothing compares to Christmastime, not even glitzy state dinners.

“State dinners are obviously the high point and the most honorific thing that you can do there,” he said. “But how you deal with the Christmas season, that’s probably the biggest challenge that happens annually.”

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