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Cooking for the presidents: Chef John Moeller on his time in the White House

Thursday - 8/14/2014, 2:22am  ET

WhiteHouseChef640.jpg
White House assistant chef John Moeller (R), assisted by David Luersen (L), lifts boiled dyed eggs in the White House kitchen March 29, 2002 in Washington, DC. Some 7,000 boiled and colored eggs will be used for the annual Easter Egg Roll April 1, 2002 on the White House South Lawn. (Photo by Manny Ceneta/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Chef John Moeller recalls a cold winter night in the late ‘90s -- the kind of night that begged for a hot, comforting dish. Moeller decided to make a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs Lancaster County-style chicken pot pie.

Shortly after it was served, he swung open the kitchen door to the dining room and received praise from his diner -- President Bill Clinton.

"He was basically leaning over the bowl, woofing it down," Moeller says. "And he looked up over at me through the top of his glasses and gave me the thumbs-up and said, 'John, this is the kind of food I like.'"

A few years later, when President George W. Bush was in office, it was another cold winter night, and Moeller decided to pull out the pot pie recipe once again.

"The door opened up and there was President Bush there, leaning over the bowl, basically woofing it down. He looks up at me, gives me the thumbs-up and says, 'John, this is the kind of food I like,'" Moeller says. "It was an exact ditto."

When the president and first lady go out to eat, where they dine and what they order makes headlines. But most have no idea how they eat when they're at home.

Chef John Moeller writes about his experiences working for 13 years in the White House kitchen. (Courtesy Chef John Moeller and LifeReloaded Specialty Publishing)

Moeller is one of the few. He worked as a chef in the White House from 1992 to 2005, cooking for three first families -- those of President George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush.

"It didn't matter if they were a Democrat or a Republican; if I made a good chicken pot pie, they'd all enjoy it," he says.

During his 13 years in the White House kitchen, Moeller cooked not only for the presidents but for their high-profile guests as well. One of his most memorable days was when Julia Child came for lunch -- and he had no idea.

Moeller says that when the kitchen's schedule got busy with dinners, luncheons and receptions, Executive Chef Walter Scheib would divvy up the events, placing each chef in charge of one. Moeller was assigned to execute one of First Lady Hillary Clinton's luncheons; he came up with the menu concept, got approval by the social secretary and the first lady and got to work preparing the meal.

"Fifteen minutes before service, somebody came back and said, 'Oh, Julia Child is here today.' We were busy; we were moving along, there was no point in changing anything at that point in time. You just say, 'My goodness, I hope this thing goes off OK,'" Moeller says.

And it did. After the lunch, Child came down to the kitchen to tell Moeller how much she enjoyed the food. A week later, one of the White House ushers came to Moeller and told him he had something Moeller should see.

"There was a letter from Mrs. Child, saying how much she enjoyed her stay, the food, everything else," says Moeller, who photocopied the letter and saved it.

Actors, athletes and musicians were also common guests at the White House. One night, Moeller was in the kitchen by himself after others had left. He looked up and saw Anthony Hopkins standing there, asking Moeller about the kitchen's pots and pans.

On another quiet Saturday afternoon, Moeller walked up a flight of stairs and into the hallway when he heard some music playing.

"Sitting at the grand piano was Mick Jagger," says Moeller, who worked as sous chef to Pierre Chambrin and Walter Scheib, and eventually became White House chef in 2005.

"We don't have this big crew of people that cook just for the president and the first lady when they are dining by themselves. It's basically, you work by yourself," Moeller says. That made run-ins with celebrities even more exciting.

He also cooked for leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair, and Moeller details these and other experiences from his time working at the White House in his book, "Dining at the White House: From the President's Table to Yours."

Chef John Moeller's recipe for pan-seared bison with Madeira sauce, made for President Clinton. (Courtesy Chef John Moeller and LifeReloaded Specialty Publishing)

Each chapter of his book is dedicated to one of the three presidents for whom he worked. Moeller also showcases some of the official White House menus.

"You can see the menu, see the purpose of the meal … and the wines that were served," says Moeller. Next to each menu, he recreates the recipes or a course on the menu. The book contains more than 100 White House recipes.

While impromptu appearances by celebrities were exciting, Moeller says his favorite part of the job was being close to the presidents, first ladies and families.

"And having a relationship with them that was non-political too," he says. "I mean, we would never, ever talk about politics when you're up on the second floor taking care of them. We are there to try to make their stay, in that bubble, as comfortable as possible while they are in the White House. To kind of see them in that light, that non-political way, was just a joy."

Recipe: Pan-seared bison loin with Madeira sauce

Eat like a president: Chef John Moeller shares a recipe from his book "Dining at the White House."

Ingredients:

  • 3 (10-ounce) bison strip steaks
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • Salt and fresh milled black pepper

    Remove steaks from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Season steaks with salt and pepper. Heat oil in medium pan over medium-high heat. Place steaks in the pan and sear four to five minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer to a plate, and rest for five minutes.

    Madeira sauce

    Ingredients:

    • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
    • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
    • 5 peppercorns
    • 1 sprig fresh thyme
    • 1/2 cup Madeira wine
    • 1 cup prepared demi-glace
    • Salt and fresh milled black pepper

    Melt the butter in a medium saucepot over medium heat. Add shallots and sauté four to five minutes until lightly browned. Add peppercorns and thyme and sauté another two minutes. Add wine, and bring to boil for 10 minutes, or until reduced by 80 percent. Add demi-glace, return to boil and decrease heat to simmer for five minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Strain into another saucepot, cover and keep warm over low heat.

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