New White House Head Chef Debuts for British Royalty

The temperature is rising in Cristeta Comerford's (search) basement kitchen.

After two months on the job and plenty of meals served behind the scenes, the first female White House chef makes her official culinary debut in a very public way Wednesday: preparing lunch and three dinner courses for Britain's Prince Charles and Camilla (search), Duchess of Cornwall.

It's the couple's first visit to the United States since tying the knotin April.

But if pleasing the royal couple isn't pressure enough, next on Comerford's plate is the December holiday season. That's when President Bush and wife Laura throw open the White House doors to some 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 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 former chef Walter Scheib III, who hired her as a part-timer in 1995.

In fact, 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 India's prime minister.

It helped her clinch the promotion.

With such experience under her apron, dinner for the royals "should be, in many respects, old hat," said Scheib, whose exit from the kitchen last February after 11 years of cooking for two presidents cleared the way for Comerford's appointment by first lady Laura Bush.

"She is one of the best chefs culinarily that I've ever worked with," Scheib said in an interview, describing Comerford as "basically a co-chef with me. Her input and her menus were as used as often as not."

Roland Mesnier, a former White House pastry chef, said 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, Laura Bush said 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, 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, Comerford planned a meal with his nation'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 and 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.

Comerford's appointment "is exactly what young women thinking of a career in the culinary arts need set as an example before them," Moore said in an interview.

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 everything from state dinners and other official functions, where the guest list can soar into the hundreds, to cozier gatherings hosted by the president and first lady. The job pays between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.

"It's God sent," 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."

Comerford has to cook for a lot of other VIPs, too. Charles is an avid organic farmer -- even his wedding cake, a one-layer fruit cake -- 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 -- Comerford will turn her attention to the holidays and such "must-do" items as making sure she's 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 work days of 16 to 18 hours become the norm for the staff.

In fact, Comerford already has begun to plan menus and hold tastings for holiday meals, "so she is definitely multitasking," said Susan Whitson, spokeswoman for Laura Bush.

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

"If you don't plan well, then in the middle of the holiday what's going to happen?" asked Mesnier, raising a most unpalatable prospect. "You're going to run out of food."

For the White House chef, 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."