For around two decades John Moeller was part an elite group of American chefs who served at the pleasure of the President of the United States.
It was a somewhat cloistered existence. Moeller and his colleagues learned to not speak much to the outside world of chefs, focusing their attention on the daily meals of the residents, and on massive state dinners and working lunches.
"We were a little bit sheltered because we didn't interact with the outside world," he told Business Insider in an interview. "You don't know people's intentions, they might be looking for information... We had to be protected."
That lasted from the beginning of George H.W. Bush's administration, to the end of his son's — George W. Bush — in 2008.
And so after returning to his home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Moeller decided to write about what he learned in his new book, "Dining at the White House." He's also cooking a select number of White House dishes from state dinners and the like at New York City's Delmonico's — one of the city's oldest restaurants and host of presidents throughout its history — through the week leading up to this year's Presidential election.
Think American classics with a modern update — Pistachio Crusted Lamb Chops, an Osso Buco of Salmon and Diver Scallops — paired with wines that have also been served at the White House. Michelle Obama's favorite 2015 Penner-Ash Viognier made the cut.
There's a lot that goes into decisions like that. Moeller explained that menu approval for state dinners especially was a process.
"[Visiting dignitaries'] embassies will forward to us, through the State Department, dietary restrictions, likes, dislikes, allergies, religious considerations... I look at that and I know the likes and dislikes of our President and First Lady and then you start creating something. I look at seasonal, regional ingredients and move on to that and try to have some fun."
Once the menu is imagined, it then goes to the Usher's office which is like White House central command. They type it up and send it to the Social Office. The head of that office sees it and may send questions. Once the menu passes that hurdle it can be presented to the First Lady. When it's approved it goes to the calligraphy department.
But that's just the mechanics. There were and are obviously a lot of personal, human moments involved with working at the White House just like anywhere else.
So Moeller shared a few with us. And honestly the following had to be our favorite:
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush reacted the same exact way to the same exact dish — chicken pot pie. Moeller prepared it as one would in central Pennsylvania* Dutch style, with the crust cooked inside the stew.
He served it to Clinton on a whim.
"I put it bowl and give it to the butler, and there's a swinging door that goes into the dining room. There's a little diamond window [on the door] and lots of times we'd sort of look outside," Moeller recounted. "I saw the butler come back and there was Clinton just a few feet in there at the table and ... he's eating it and he looks up to me and says 'John, this is the kind of food I like.'
Years later on a cold winter night Moeller made the same meal for Bush who was dining alone.
"I give it to the butler... I go to look and he's already coming back in the kitchen and Bush is sitting where Clinton was sitting and he is leaning over the bowl wolfing it down and he looks up at me and says 'John, this is the kind of food I like' I kid you not, the exact same thing the exact same motion."
A few more tidbits from Moeller's memory:
- One night about a month into her father's administration, Chelsea Clinton was eating alone and asked for macaroni and cheese. After Moeller whipped up a bechamel sauce from with a bunch of fancy cheese, she thanked him kindly but said she preferred the Kraft Macaroni from the blue box.
- Moeller was most blown away when culinary legend Julia Child complimented his meal at the White House in 1997. He had her letter to the First Lady about it (Hillary Clinton at the time) and Clinton's response framed. The most electrifying state dinner, he said, was Nelson Mandela's.
- Once Moeller caught Eric Clapton and Lenny Kravitz warming up to Jimmi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" before a Clinton era concert. Lenny came by after and hung out in the kitchen with his crew. Actor Anthony Hopkins chilled in the kitchen too.
- First Lady Laura Bush had a mean eggs migas recipe that Moeller said he still uses as an excellent hangover cure when in need. "Call me next time you have a hangover," he said with a chuckle. "Mrs. Bush turned me on to this... [she] asked for it for lunch... Soft scrambled eggs, corned tortillas fried. Fold that into the soft scrambled egg, put into a casserole dish, top with salsa and cheese and finish it off in the oven.
- The George W. Bush family did not do flour tortillas. They are from Texas, and like all respectable Texans, consume only corn tortillas made from scratch. This is likely also the way God would want it.
- Barbara Bush was the least hands on First Lady."She said 'you people know what you're doing,'" Moeller told us. He also said she and her husband win the award for "best palate."
While Moeller cooked inside the White House, American cuisine changed. The Food Network created the celebrity chef. He, like everyone else on the outside, started experimenting with more vegetables. We, as a country, became more serious about our food.
*Your correspondent is also from central Pennsylvania and corroborates that this is the ideal way to cook chicken pot pie.
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