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Hail to the Chef

January 07, 1993|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

Just about everybody knows by now that a coalition of the country's most important chefs, rallied by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, has sent the President-elect a letter urging him to lead the nation fearlessly into an era of good food. They want him to stop eating junk food and start eating good food, which they define as being "about seasonality, ripeness and simplicity."

The chefs are asking that Clinton appoint a White House chef who embraces their own philosophy. And they'd like him or her to be American. Let's overlook, for the moment, a few small details such as the fact that the White House chef is not normally appointed by the incoming administration, or that the current chef, Pierre Chambrin, buys eggs when they are only three hours old. Let's forget that Chambrin is enthusiastic about just about everything organic, and so excited by the idea of seasonality that the White House has taken to serving turnips at this time of the year. Let's imagine that the President-elect were to choose a new chef: What would the Clintons end up eating? We've rounded up a few of the usual suspects.

Mark Miller

If Mark Miller were appointed White House chef, he wouldn't have far to go--his Red Sage Restaurant is just down the street. Miller has spent most of his working life grumbling about how little respect Third World food gets in America; one of his aims in opening the Coyote Cafe in Sante Fe was to bring spice into our lives. He'd certainly use the White House kitchen as a place to proselytize about the foods of the Americas.

Clinton could surely count on Miller to make him some really fresh mango ice cream, and his enchiladas would be extraordinary (although Clinton would have to forgo those canned chiles). "Americans still respect only things from Europe on the table," Miller once said--and he'd surely jump at the chance to change that.

Alice Waters

Alice Waters would be the perfect chef for that "great salad eater," Hillary Clinton. Waters is the guru of salad--there was a time, not so long ago, when she personally washed each leaf of lettuce at Chez Panisse. When a Midwestern hotel chain named a salad after her, Waters considered it a great compliment.

In a Waters regime, the White House refrigerator would be filled with fresh local vegetables; if she couldn't find farmers to grow them, she'd probably clear some of the bushes out of the Rose Garden and plant her own vegetable plot. She, after all, is the person who once said: "I've always wanted to have a restaurant where you just led people into this wonderful garden, gave them some great bread and good olive oil and said, 'There it is, help yourselves.' "

Paul Prudhomme

If anybody could keep the whole family happy it's the man from Louisiana. He's one cook who has no qualms about opening up a can every now and then--and he makes a mean enchilada. (I'm sure he'd be happy to change his famous recipe from crawfish to chicken to please the President.) And just imagine what he'd do to a pot of macaroni and cheese!

For Mrs. Clinton, Prudhomme would be a mixed blessing. He's not much on salads--you'd be hard-pressed to find anything green in his New Orleans restaurant--but he'd certainly cater to her taste for spicy foods. His motto is "Totally hot!" This is what he has to say about his food: "When you chew, it has to really pop at you. You wait a moment, and you'll have this sort of itch, this hot, urgent glow in your mouth and at first you say, 'It hurts me'--and then all of a sudden you say, 'I want that feeling again. It was wonderful.' "

State dinners might never recover.

Larry Forgione

Who's going to make apple cobbler for Bill Clinton? How about Larry Forgione, the man who was so concerned about the quality of American food that in the '70s, long before it became fashionable, he named his New York restaurant "An American Place." Forgione was the first to go looking for regional American products, the first to make them his mission. He found farmers in Michigan whose cows gave cream so rich you had only to give it a shake before it turned into whipped cream. He'd undoubtedly make his cobbler out of heirloom apples--he'd probably even make them out of apples favored by former Presidents.

And Forgione might be the one to try to talk the President into making those steak tenders out of buffalo meat. After all, buffalo is not only low in fat and ecologically correct--it's also a true-blue native American.

Brad Ogden

We know that the Clintons care about breakfast. We can see them sitting on stools in the White House kitchen, gobbling up their oatmeal and toasting each other with their orange juice. Who's stirring the oatmeal? Bradley Ogden, of course, the San Francisco chef who put breakfast back on the map when everybody said we weren't eating it anymore. Ogden makes the world's greatest oatmeal (topped with real American maple syrup and cream), and once Chelsea gets a taste of his extraordinary hot chocolate, she'll never go back to Hershey's.

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