White House Hires First Female Head Chef

Kitchen duties may have traditionally been viewed as women's work, but not at the White House. Until now: Cristeta Comerford (search) has been named executive chef.

After an extensive six-month search, first lady Laura Bush (search) announced Sunday that Comerford was chosen from hundreds of applicants to head the executive kitchen. A naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines, she will be the first woman and first minority to hold the post.

The 42-year-old Comerford has been an assistant chef at the White House for 10 years. She worked under former executive chef Walter Scheib III (search), who resigned in February.

Scheib said Sunday that Comerford was hands down the best assistant he had in his 30-year career and is a wonderful choice to take over. He said she is a great cook with an artistic eye and a calm demeanor that can handle the pressure cooker that is the White House kitchen.

"People keep talking about how wonderful it is that she's a woman," Scheib said in a telephone interview. "If there is value in the gender, that's fine and dandy. But I say she's a great chef who happens to be a woman."

While being executive chef at the White House is prestigious, the job also can be grueling. Comerford will be in charge of whipping up everything from state dinners for world leaders to munchies for the commander in chief, his family and guests.

As many as 2,000 guests per month are fed at the White House. Mrs. Bush has signaled her intent to do more entertaining than in the first term, when festivities were taboo after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mrs. Bush said she was delighted that Comerford accepted the job. "Her passion for cooking can be tasted in every bite of her delicious creations," the first lady said in a statement.

Mrs. Bush has been trying out finalists for the job, asking them to prepare test meals at special functions and private meals at the residence.

Comerford developed the menu for last month's honorary dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The 134 dinner guests dined on chilled asparagus soup and lemon creme; pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants and herbed summer vegetables; and salad of Bibb lettuces and citrus vinaigrette.

Comerford will have ample opportunity to oversee more simple fare — the Bushes are known for staying in most nights rather than socializing like their predecessors. The president has a liking for cheeseburgers, peanut butter and honey sandwiches and, of course, Tex-Mex and barbecue.

The first lady's press secretary, Susan Whitson, said Mrs. Bush chose Comerford while spending August at the Bushes' Texas ranch. The job was offered to Comerford on Friday by the White House social secretary, Lea Berman, and head usher Gary Walters.

Whitson said Comerford then left for a vacation to a foreign country that the White House would not disclose and was not available for interviews Sunday.

Comerford has a bachelor's degree in Food Technology from the University of the Philippines. She has worked at Le Ciel in Vienna, Austria and at restaurants in two Washington hotels — the Westin and the ANA, which has since changed ownership.

The head chef is responsible for designing and executing menus for state dinners, social events, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons hosted by the president and first lady. The job pays around $80,000-$100,000 a year.

Mrs. Bush's statement said Comerford has been trained in French classical techniques and specializes in ethnic and American cuisine and has experience working with chefs in San Francisco and the California wine country.

Hillary Clinton hired Scheib, a California native and graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, in April 1994 because she wanted to feature American cuisine after years of French cooking ushered in by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Scheib has started his own business planning private events and is writing a book that will include recipes and tales of working for the Clintons and Bushes.

"We're not doing a dishing-the-dirt, not at all," Scheib said. "It was an honor to be there and work with the families. I wouldn't want to do anything to embarrass them."