Chef John Moeller has had the culinary experience of a lifetime. As the former chef to three First Families, including President George H.W. Bush, President William Jefferson Clinton, and President George W. Bush, Moeller continually pleased both residents and guests of the White House by preparing très soigné cuisine. Thanks to a strong foundation in French cuisine, where très soigné stands for "very neat," Moeller joined the White House staff as a sous chef in 1992 and took full rein of every menu when he became the White House chef in 2005. Tasked with one of the hardest jobs in the culinary field, Moeller was able to master both elegant and everyday dishes.
Since Moeller is one of the longest-tenured chefs across three administrations, he has an extensive list of recipes to share with the American public that demonstrate what it is really like to eat and work in the White House. In an effort to display his signature culinary style as well as the fun stories that make up his positive experience working at the White House, Moeller has written his first cookbook, Dining at the White House — From the President's Table to Yours, which was published in September 2013.
While the book may have come out a while ago, the stories and recipes live on, as Moeller is currently traveling the country to offer an exclusive taste from the White House. He will join members of the Hospice of Palm Beach Foundation and the Hospice by the Sea Foundation Inc. on Saturday, April 18, for a cooking demonstration and conversation about his book in Oakland Park.
Moeller discusses some of his fondest memories working at the White House, what he plans to share at his upcoming event, and the challenges of working in the White House kitchen.
New Times: What is one of your fondest memories working in the White House kitchen?
John Moeller: There's so many of them. As a culinarian, it was a pretty big deal when Julia Child came in and had lunch at the White House. I've seen kings, queens, dignitaries, stars, actors, and force figures, but to have someone like Julia Child come to a luncheon that you're going to orchestrate is a lot different. I did not know she was going to be on the guest list until a few minutes before we served the guests. After the luncheon, she came to the kitchen and thanked us for a great meal and was very, very happy with everything. We decided to start the cookbook with that story. It was kind of interesting. A week later, someone in the usher's office, which is a command center of the White House, approached me. They said, "That was your luncheon that you did last week, wasn't it? You might want to see this." It was a letter from Ms. Child to Mrs. Clinton, talking about how much she enjoyed visiting the White House and that it was one of the nicest luncheons she's ever been to at the White House. The service was great, and the food was timeless. I took a photocopy of that letter along with the letter Mrs. Clinton sent to Ms. Child. I held onto it until we made the book. The luncheon happened in 1999, towards the end of the Clinton administration.
What are you most excited to share during the upcoming event with Hospice of Palm Beach Country Foundation and Hospice by the Sea Foundation?
People enjoy the stories. They love the food that I offer, of course. And I talk about it in a fun way and give people an insider's view on what it is like to dine at the White House, as well as my interaction with these three families. The beginning of the book details my road to the White House. I had a funny, interesting story too. I talk about the families a lot. There's tons of fun little stories, and then there's also 9/11, which makes things somber for a moment. People really seem to the enjoy the stories, though. These folks are angels. I do an auction for the Hospice of Lancaster County. I've been working with them for many years, and what they do for society is incredible. I get quite a few calls on a regular basis for philanthropy work, and I've raised some serious money over the years. I've raised over $150,000 on my own for different events. My dinners are usually anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000, but the most I've ever raised is $16,000. It brings a lot of joy to the charities who need this kind of funding.
What’s the biggest difference working in the White House kitchen as compared to a restaurant?
A lot of chefs probably couldn't do this. They can't understand it until they actually do it. You have to put your ego aside and understand that you are serving to the pleasure of the President. You are there to make the President as happy as possible. Sometimes, they may ask you things that go against what you think is the best thing to do in that situation but you have to understand the need to serve them in the best way you can. You are also serving the same people everyday. It's not like a restaurant where you might have the same menu and a couple of different specials and different customers coming in everyday. You have the same customers at the White House, and it's a nice home as well as a banquet facility. You are dealing with a cross between a hotel/banquet kitchen or a country club kitchen in somebody's home. You have to be mindful of a few things, especially when it comes to the trust awarded to work on the second floor of the White House, where you intermix with the families and take care of their daily needs. My book offers a great perspective on what it is like to work in the White House. I received two letters, one from Hilary Clinton and the other from Laura Bush. Their letters mentioned how much they love the book and how it honors the traditions of the White House. They thanked me graciously for making the White House a home for them, and that's the most important part of the job: How do you make the White House a home for four or eight years?
How did the menu change for each administration?
There were two types of cooking that I did at the White House. There were official breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions, and picnics on the South Grounds, but we were also their private chefs. We did their daily meals, too. When they ate by themselves on the second floor, they were mostly concerned with their caloric intake and eating heavy foods. They were exposed to so many heavy foods when they were on the road or even at the White House State Dinner, so in a lot of ways, they ate very similarly. They were all very conscious of their weight. I developed a chicken enchilada recipe early on, and they all enjoyed it. I would offer that dish every month or so, but each President really liked everyday food. The Bush's were growing into specific foods when they lived there so what they started out eating and what they ended up eating are two different things. Like many people, they grew into the situation they were exposed to.
What’s the most interesting day at the White House?
It's Inauguration Day. I didn't really know what was going to happen or how it was going to unfold, but we were all standing there and there's probably about 80 of us who are resident staff that help maintain the house on a day-to-day basis. Suddenly, these big mahogany doors open up and it's the President and the First Lady walking out. It's a very heartfelt goodbye, where you start to think of all the good times you had with each President. It becomes very emotional. I didn't know what to expect the first time but it was heavy. Out of all of the goodbyes each President has to have, it is always the toughest to say goodbye to your residential staff. I remember each of them saying, "You folks have taken care of us for the last four years, and we can't thank you enough." The transition happens immediately after they walk out of the building, as the ceremonial activities begin to take place for the next few hours for swearing in the new President. I'll never forget those days that I witnessed and it was incredible to be a part of it.
Herb-Crusted Chicken Breast with White Wine Butter Sauce
Herb-Crusted Chicken Breast
Chef’s Note: I was always looking for interesting light fare to make for lunch. This idea came from a restaurant that I worked at in France, Chez Camille. I thought that if I could crust the chicken with this wonderful mixture of herbs, it would not only give a dramatic presentation, but it would taste great also. This combination of herbs is known as fine herbs and blend together well. I’m always looking to create new ways to prepare chicken. Now 1,002 ways to cook chicken!
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chives
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped chervil, optional
- ¼ cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 6 (5-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 1 egg white, lightly whipped
- ¼ cup unsalted clarified butter
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Combine parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil in shallow bowl. Place flour in separate small bowl, and stir in salt and pepper. Dredge skin side only of chicken breast in flour, and shake off excess. Dip floured side of chicken in egg white, and shake off excess. Place chicken breast on plate, floured-and-egg side up. Evenly sprinkle chicken with fine herb mixture.
Heat medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, and add clarified butter. In batches, place chicken herb-side down in pan, and gently sauté 4 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to sheet pan herb-side up, and finish in oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, and let it rest for 5 minutes.
White Wine Butter Sauce
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 shallot, peeled and sliced
- 6 black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
- Juice of ½ lemon
- Salt and fresh milled black pepper
In small saucepot over medium-high heat, combine wine, shallots, peppercorns, and bay leaves, and bring to simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until reduced by 90%. Add the cream, and continue to simmer for 5 minutes, or until reduced by 50%. Reduce heat to medium low, and whisk in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into another small saucepot, and keep warm over low heat. Do not boil (the sauce will separate).
An Exclusive Taste from the White House with Chef John Moeller; 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 18; at Hugh’s Catering, 4351 NE 12th Terrace, Oakland Park; to benefit Hospice of Palm Beach County Foundation and Hospice by the Sea Foundation; Tickets are $150 per person and may be purchased by calling 561-416-5037.
Gillian Speiser is a contributing writer for About.com's Cookbooks & Food Writing page. Follow Gillian Speiser on Twitter.