Cooking in the White House

Mark Schafer

Former White House chef John Moeller serves up memories of his 13 years cooking for the first families in his book, Dining at the White House: From the President’s Table to Yours, which was released on Tuesday.

The book traces Moeller’s culinary journey from Lancaster, Pa., to the White House (by way of France and the Caribbean), where he worked from 1995 to 2002, serving former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  

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Moeller currently teaches culinary arts and runs State of Affairs Catering in Lancaster. He’ll be at a book signing, hosted by the White House Historical Association, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at Decatur House at 1610 H St. NW in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, he spoke to The Hill about his experiences in the White House:

Q: What should we expect to find in your book?

A lot of people may have an opportunity to come to the White House and visit the red room or the blue room or state dining room, but unfortunately, they will never have a chance to go upstairs and see what it’s like on the second floor, which is the personal residence of the president. And I wanted to give the people an insider view of what it’s like to be there, what it’s like to do my job there and take care of the most important people there in our country, and even the feel of what it’s like to have dignitaries come in — what is the process of getting a menu approved for the chancellor of Germany coming in or something along that line.

Q: In reading the book, I was struck by the amount of flexibility required by White House chefs. Describe coming up with the menus.

Flexibility is massive. I’d say one of the first things you have to come in here and understand is that you are working in a private home, and as much as you want to take your experience and make the best food you can, you have to feed them the foods that they would like to have. … You go with the things they like and start creating new things. Doing that for 13 years, I was able to basically play with my food. … And then the other part of being flexible is on a Saturday afternoon or evening, when you’re by yourself, or even Sunday, and there’s supposed to be two for dinner, and all of a sudden, two swells up to 6, 8, or 10 or more. … You have to be prepared to shift gears and change the format and the whole menu if needed, and add things to it if need be. … So a value that I share even today, and I tell my employees all the time, is that it’s not what happens, it’s how you react to it.

Q: You said you could almost anticipate the cravings of the first ladies before they could. Compare Hillary Clinton’s food taste with Laura Bush’s.

There were some similarities. They both liked spicy food. … They both enjoyed artichokes, but I remember when I started putting artichokes on the menu with Mrs. Clinton, she absolutely loved it. I probably put more artichokes on the menu than ever with them. And then Mrs. [Laura] Bush, she loved avocados. She even told me, “We could eat avocados almost every single day.”  

Q: You spoke highly of Chelsea Clinton in your book.  How did your job change with a kid living in the White House?

She was 12 years old when she got there, and at first — you know, she eats what we eat — we kept to kind of simple menus. … [One night], the butler came down and said she’d like macaroni and cheese and, of course, I jumped down and made it from scratch, and she said, “Well that was all well and good and nice, but next time can I have the one from the box?” 

Q: Do you miss serving the first families still?

Oh, absolutely.  It was a huge part of my life, and it was very memorable. And to be catapulted up to the second floor kitchen, and having the president and the first lady on the other side of the swinging door in their dining room, the butler transporting the food back and forth for you, and then maybe stepping back in the kitchen before or after saying a couple of words. … There are only a handful of people who have been able to do that over time, and fortunately I was able to be one of them, and I did that for 13 years, and there’s nothing that can take away from those memories. They will be treasured for a lifetime.

Chicken Pot Pie Dutch Style 

John Moeller’s Chicken Potpie, in the chicken-dumpling style of his hometown, was a cold-weather favorite of Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

He told The Hill: “President Clinton, he’s leaning over the bowl eating this chicken potpie. He just looks up at me with his eyeballs there and just looked up and said, ‘John, this is the kind of food I like.’ … And I started doing that chicken potpie, and they absolutely loved it. And then, ironically, the exact same thing happened with George W. Bush, and I got the thumbs up. He looked at me, and he goes, ‘John, this is the kind of food I like.’ You never know. Sometimes they just like simple, good food.”

Here is his recipe: 

  • 1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds
  • 1 cup each of medium cut 
  •    carrots, celery and onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1½ cups each of medium large dice carrots, celery and onions
  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons of flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dumpling dough
  • ½ pound All-Purpose flour 
  • 3-4 eggs 
  • Pinch of salt
  1. Cover the chicken with cold water. Add the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaves and peppercorns. Bring to a boil than to a simmer for about 1¼ to 1½ hours. Remove the chicken and split in half and allow to cool for 15 minutes until you can remove the meat from the carcass. You will then return the bones to the simmering pot of stock and allow to cook for one more hour. The meat you can tear into medium large pieces and reserve for later.  
  2. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the dumpling dough by mixing the flour and salt together, then add the eggs and mix until you have a soft dough consistency. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour.  
  3. In a large pot, melt the butter and sweat the large dice of carrots, celery and onions over a medium low heat. Do not brown the vegetables. 
  4. Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer and keep at a simmer.  Take the dough from the fridge and flour your table and roll this out to 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch thickness.  I like to use a pizza cutter roll and cut the dough into ½-inch by 2.5-inch strips of dough. You will put this into the simmering stock to cook the dough for about 10 minutes.
  5. Sprinkle the 3 tablespoons of flour over the sweating vegetables and mix well. Then, add the stock and dumplings into this and keep stirring until you have incorporated the flour and simmer to thicken to sauce constancy.  You can always add a little corn starch if this needs to be thicker. 
  6. After simmering for 10 minutes, season with salt and pepper, add the chicken, heat and serve in a bowl. Fresh biscuits can go nicely with this.