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Hail to the chef

For more than two decades, Haller fed leaders of free world

For more than two decades, Haller fed leaders of free world

November 06, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Chef Henry Haller was at work early on Aug. 9, 1974. It was 7:30 a.m., and as he entered his kitchen a middle-aged man turned from another conversation and approached.

Dressed in pajamas and bare feet, the weight of the world on his shoulders, the man approached Haller, who greeted his employer.

"Chef, I've been eating all over the world," Haller recalls President Richard M. Nixon saying. "And your food was the best."

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Nearly 30 years later, Haller is still slightly taken with how Nixon, about to leave the White House in shame, could make a point of complimenting his chef on a job well done.

The story is but one of thousands Haller can tell, buffet style, about his time feeding the leaders of the free world.

For nearly 22 years and five presidential administrations, the 79-year-old native of Switzerland concocted culinary delights for the most powerful men and women alive.

Sunday, Nov. 10, Haller will share his stories with an audience at the Clarion Hotel in Shepherdstown, W.Va., during a buffet dinner reproducing favorite recipes of the presidents he cooked for.

There will be Ford's Braised Pork Chops with Pan Juices ... Johnson's Seafood Newburg ... Nixon's Re-stuffed Baked Potatoes. ...

As difficult as his job was, with long hours and the challenge of satisfying not only the first family but visiting dignitaries, you'd think Haller's greatest feat would be assembling the menu for regal state dinners.

Guess again.

"Every president wanted to eat simple foods. You just can't eat whole meals (all the time), they wanted to eat like home," Haller says. "State dinners were easier to come up with than making a menu for the first family for a full week."

Since his retirement in 1987, Haller has penned a cookbook ("The White House Family Cookbook: Two Decades of Recipes, a Dash of Reminiscence, and a Pinch of History from America's Most Famous Kitchen"), spoken about his long career and served as a food consultant.

But the creme de la creme of his culinary odyssey came at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"In a hotel or restaurant, you always have to work for profit," Haller, who lives in Potomac, Md., with wife Carole, says. "But at the White House it was always keep guests happy, keep the first family happy, keep the president happy."

Philosophically, it is a none too subtle shift that freed the chef to play in any of the three White House kitchens. A second floor work space is reserved strictly for the first family, while a ground-floor kitchen is the center of activity for banquets. A third, smaller, area is used for residence staff.

When he first came to Washington in 1966, at the behest of President Lyndon B. Johnson, it meant vacating the lucrative executive chef position at New York's Sheraton-East, then on Fifth Avenue.

Not too shabby, but the chance to serve at the pleasure of the president was too tempting to pass up.

Of course, not all was stress-free.

The 1976 bicentennial celebration was a bear, with state dinners lined up two or three days a week instead of the customary once or twice a month.

And the hours were known to be tough, which is why his third-floor room came in handy the night before an early breakfast event.

"You never wanted to embarrass the first lady, you never wanted to embarrass the president. You have pressure," Haller says. "But I kind of thrive on pressure."

Haller began cooking because as a boy in Switzerland he learned early that chefs were viewed in high esteem in the tourist country. His parents encouraged his career choice, and as he grew into the role he fell in love with working in kitchens.

The master chef recalls something his father told him decades ago, half a world away.

"People will always have to eat, and you will always have a job," Haller says. "And guess what? I still have a job."

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