When Barack Obama was elected, foodies rejoiced. Finally, they thought, a president who enjoys the pleasures of fine dining and the virtues of healthy eating! A leader who feels our pain about the skyrocketing price of arugula! In November, San Francisco chef Alice Waters, a pioneer of the organic-food movement, wrote an open letter to the president-elect, suggesting that his eating habits could set an example for the rest of the country. Waters, along with Gourmet magazine's Ruth Reichl and New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, offered to serve as Obama's informal "kitchen cabinet." Their first suggestion: Obama should hire a new White House chef who would cook local, seasonal, organic meals for the first family, preferably with items grown in a presidential garden. Soon enough, big-name candidates for the job began to circulate, including Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey's personal chef, and Rick Bayless, the man behind Chicago's Topolobampo, one of the Obamas' favorite haunts. But then Michelle Obama announced that the family would stick with Cristeta Comerford, President Bush's chef since 2005 and the first woman to hold the job. A minor kerfuffle erupted. They kept Bush's chef? Had Obama offended the foodies?
It turns out the gastronomers didn't have their facts straight, so they ended up with egg on their faces. While Bush never hid his love for hot dogs and burgers, Comerford had actually been serving organic meals to the outgoing family for years. "It's too bad we didn't know that," says Reichl, though she insists that she and her comrades were never calling for Comerford's head. That said, Reichl hopes that the Obamas will be more forthcoming about what's on their plates than the Bushes were.
If so, it'll probably have to come from the horse's mouth. The White House residence staff is vigilant about the first family's privacy; Comerford, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines, declined to speak with NEWSWEEK. Reichl, though, is undaunted. She dreams of a day when the White House kitchen has its own press office and regularly publishes its menu. "Food choices matter," she says. "If you have wholesome food being served at the most visible address in the United States, it means something to the rest of us."