Despite distinct political differences, presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush agreed on one thing: Dutch-style pot pie from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where doughy dumplings cooked in broth replace the expected buttery pie crust. Upon first trying the dish during their respective terms, each president summoned former White House chef John Moeller to their table, looked up over their eyeglasses, and said, “John, now this is the kind of food I like.”
“I kid you not — it was the exact ditto,” said the chef, who also cooked for George H.W. Bush during his 13 years in the White House. “There’s mutual ground to find there.”
Such stories will be paired with a seven-course, wine-enhanced meal that Moeller is preparing with the help of chef Michael Hutchings at a private home in Montecito on April 21. The $500-per-plate affair — abalone, squab, tenderloin, and 2005 Au Bon Climat pinot noir are just a few enticements — will benefit the nonprofit Central Coast Wine Classic, whose 31st incarnation goes down August 10-14 when it hits Santa Barbara for the first time.
Raised in Lancaster, Moeller graduated from a Rhode Island culinary school in 1981 and cooked in New England restaurants before working for two years in famous kitchens of Burgundy, France. After a brief stint in St. Croix, he stopped in Washington, D.C., on the way home to Pennsylvania and wound up finding a job on the first day. He fell in with the city’s tight-knit community of French chefs over drinks at the Mayflower Hotel, and in 1992, one such chef, who’d started working at the White House, said a job was opening there. “He thought there were too many French people in the kitchen,” laughed Moeller, who endured a three-month background check before being hired.
“I was a commoner, and all of the sudden I was catapulted to the second floor of the White House on the inside of the circle of the Secret Service,” said Moeller, who wrote a 2013 memoir meets recipe book about his experiences called Dining at the White House: From the President’s Table to Yours. “I never lost sight of what it meant to be on the second floor.”
It was challenging work. “You’re the private chef; you’re the banquet cook,” said Moeller. “They were all exposed to high-caloric foods during state dinners, so when they ate by themselves, they wanted to back off of all that and eat a little lighter. I tell people I was their chef, but a lot of times I felt like their dietician.” It was steady — aside from one time when Hillary Clinton made some eggs for a sick Chelsea, Moeller never recalls the families cooking for themselves — and creatively taxing, too, since dishes for official functions could not be repeated. But Moeller found a few favorites that he would replay for the First Family every few weeks. “I came up with a pretty good chicken enchilada recipe from scratch that I still make today,” he said.
He even learned a bit, like the time he was about to make fajitas for dinner and Laura Bush explained, “We’re from Texas, and we don’t eat flour tortillas. We only eat corn tortillas, and we prefer them fresh-made.” She assigned her Latina housekeeper, who came with the Bush family from Texas, to show Moeller what to buy and how to make them. “A couple weeks later, you could’ve called me Juan,” said Moeller. “I don’t eat fajitas with flour tortillas anymore, either.”
After a change in kitchen staff in 2005, Moeller saw it was time to move on and worked at an events center in Montgomery County before the recession ended that. In 2010, when his brother died suddenly at age 50, Moeller moved back to Lancaster to be closer to his parents, eventually writing his book and starting a catering company. “It’s a nice little enclave,” he says of his hometown between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. “I’m spoiled as a chef — I have lots of Amish farmers to work with.”
But his memories of the White House remain lucid. “The most extraordinary day is inauguration day,” he said. “What it takes to get one president in and one out is incredible, and so is learning the new repertoire of foods to work with.”
A few seats remain for the Central Coast Wine Classic White House Dinner on Thursday, April 21, at 6 p.m., so contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 878-3124. See centralcoastwineclassic.org and diningatthewhitehouse.com.