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Hail to the Chef at White House State Dinners

July 24, 1986|CAROLYN HUGHES CROWLEY | Crowley is a free-lance writer in Washington. and

Kings, queens, princes, premiers, military rulers, prime ministers and foreign and U.S. Presidents have all dined on the White House executive chef's sumptuous souffles, mousses, apsics, casseroles and veal dishes. For 20 years, Swiss-born and -trained Henry Haller has created spectacular state dinners--usually one a month--for the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. And occasionally he prepares meals for the First Families too.

Haller, 63, keeps his cool in the hottest kitchen, even when he prepares meals under the direct supervision of Nancy Reagan. By planning his daily work carefully, he avoids becoming flustered. For each visit, he said, the State Department briefs the White House social office about the number of invited people and their culinary preferences and taboos early enough for him to plan ahead.

If it's someone who has eaten at the White House before, Haller checks his file to make sure that the meal he is planning is not one the guest was served previously. He doesn't have to consider costs. The White House sends food and wine bills for meals honoring heads of countries to the State Department.

"After I do the menu, Mrs. Reagan gets involved," Haller said. She previews entire meals for state dinners, critiquing garnishes and sauces. "We try out certain dishes, cooking them ahead of time. Knowing what she wants, she approves or suggests changes. First Ladies want things their way. That's normal."

Three days before a state dinner, Haller places his orders with selected dealers the Secret Service has screened and cleared. "For security reasons I won't say how the food arrives from the grocers," he said.

Haller said no state dinner guests receive preferential treatment. The Prince of Wales receives no better nor more expensive food or wine than lesser well-known international figures.

"Seasons change the menu," Haller said. "We try to use fresh products. Our fad is fresh foods prepared at the last minute to keep their nutritional value."

No one gets second helpings at state dinners. All guests take the amounts they want from the butlers' trays. They offer the edibles only once. The White House apparently figures its guests should be full with four courses--first course, main course, salad with cheese and dessert.

Although the excitement at these functions may diminish guests' appetites, there are few leftovers.

Under Haller are his assistant chef, pastry chef, First Family chef, the kitchen steward and three cooks.

The food the White House serves has changed throughout the years. Now, Haller said, he is trying to serve lighter dishes, less beef and more veal, chicken and fresh vegetables. Originally concentrating on classical French cuisine, Haller has adopted an international cuisine throughout the years, borrowing especially from Italy, France, Germany, Latin America and China.

"I take a little from here and a little from there. I can cook in any 'language,' " he said. Haller's specialties are aspics of crab meat, lobster and shrimp. "My presentation of these is different. They have different designs."

American cuisine, Haller said, is improving all the time. "Americans are demanding more varied foods from different regions. More fresh vegetables are available." This country has "fantastic oysters and crab meat--none better in the world--from the Chesapeake and lobsters from New England."

First Family Favorites

Although state dinners are Haller's main responsibility, he sometimes takes over for the First Family chef. Haller recalls some of the Presidents' and First Ladies' favorites.

President Johnson liked roast rib of beef ("He wanted his Texas food. All you do is overcook it.") while Lady Bird Johnson enjoyed French food, as did Pat Nixon, who especially liked crepes filled with crab meat.

President Nixon often asked for Haller's broiled steak with watercress salad. "I never saw Nixon eat catsup on his cottage cheese as some people said," Haller said. The Nixons very much liked his souffle au Grand Marnier, "but the President wouldn't eat it too often. He wanted to keep his weight down."

The day after a rich state dinner, Nixon always ate a light lunch--such as sirloin steak with green beans and sliced tomatoes, or chicken breasts baked 20 minutes with lemon juice, oregano, fresh chopped parsley and Sherry. His favorite vegetable was zucchini, Haller said.

The Fords never complained about a meal the two years they were in the White House, Haller said. President Ford often requested bread-and-onion stuffed pork chops.

President Carter was fond of Southern fried chicken and Southern barbecue. He especially liked "anything with corn, like corn on the cob or grits." Haller also served Carter okra with lemon butter and braised quail in cream sauce.

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