WASHINGTON -- As cities go, the nation's capital is as food newsworthy as any in this land. What with all those embassies keeping a spotlight on international cuisine, ever-present buzz about first family dining forays or official state dinners, the food policy role of the government, and a diverse restaurant scene, a food lover has no excuse to be bored.
So it was for members of the Association of Food Journalists gathered last month for their annual conference.
Regardless of party affiliation, election year or not, everybody wants to know what and how (and where) the first family eats. A panel of current and former White House chefs shed some delicious light on that subject.
Little-known fact: The president's family pays for its own food. Groceries purchased for regular family meals are kept separate from those acquired for state dinners and other official functions, according to Cristeta Comerford, White House executive chef since August 2005.
So yes, like most families, the Obamas do eat leftovers.
And White House chefs have emphasized healthy cooking even before Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative and her efforts, such as the White House vegetable garden, to encourage Americans to eat better, Comerford said.
For this elite group of chefs, cooking for a first family -- any first family--requires a special mind-set.
"The White House is a house," said pastry chef Bill Yosses. "That was the biggest adjustment for me."
"It's not about us as chefs," emphasized Comerford. "At the end of the day, you have to please the people you're cooking for."
To that end, the chefs on the panel all could remember dishes that a president asked them to never make again.
For George H.W. Bush, it was a broccoli dish that Barbara insisted he would love, said Frank Ruta. ("Maybe she was setting me up, I don't know," he mused, referencing the president's well-known distaste for broccoli.)
For Bill Clinton, it was pecan pie, recalled Roland Mesnier, White House pastry chef for 26 years starting in 1979.
Feeling creative, Yosses once made a chocolate pecan pie for the Obamas. Not a hit. The first family also doesn't care for beets, Comerford learned after serving a dish of them once.
Talk of state dinners revealed that White House customs can and do change. A typical state dinner today consists of five courses served to 136 people, Comerford said. And they last exactly 55 minutes.
Plating of dinners is done in the old family dining room because the kitchen is too small, she said. Although this is "the hardest part of the meal," she said, in full swing "we can crank out 50 plates in seven minutes."
When Ruta and Mesnier were in the White House, state dinners were not individually plated. They were served family style on large platters. Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered the change.
"I think platter service is much nicer," said the outspoken Mesnier, "because you can choose what you want. And the platters were always beautiful and festive.
"I hate plate service. When that came to the White House, I really resented it. Most of my desserts were plattered to the very end."