By Patty Foss-Bennie
OPN Connect: How often do you use organic fruits and vegetables in your cooking – as a White House chef and now, in State of Affairs Catering?
Chef Moeller: I’ve always looked towards organic first to see if that can fill the order for whatever I’m cooking. If I can’t find organic, I turn to conventional. Being in Lancaster, PA, in the middle of Amish Country, it’s ideal when everything is in season. The Amish were the original organic farmers and I’ve always had some great sources for organic produce here, even when I worked in the White House.
OPN Connect: In your book, “Dining at the White House”, you wrote Chelsea Clinton was a vegetarian and that sometimes, the family would enjoy “meatless meals”. Did the First Family prefer organic fruits and vegetables?
Chef Moeller: Yes, the Clintons had some meatless meals and Chelsea is a vegetarian. At that time, we couldn’t just use organics, but we were probably about 50 percent organic. For Chelsea, I would look first for organic to fill the order if possible.
OPN Connect: Did you shop at the local markets for ingredients?
Chef Moeller: Actually, we did. For security reasons randomness is the best way to thwart potential problems. In a restaurant, everything is delivered. In the White House, we don’t know what’s in the delivery truck, who the driver is and that could be disastrous. So, I would make a grocery list, give it to someone in the storeroom who, along with a secret service agent in plain clothes, went out in an unmarked vehicle with a residential license plate. They’d randomly cruise the city and stop at Safeway, Whole Foods or even a specialty store if I needed something out of the ordinary.
OPN Connect: You wrote about preparing meals at Camp David and other locations for the first families. Does a White House Chef travel overseas with the first family?
Chef Moeller: We don’t travel with them most of the time. In 1994, we did do the Summit of American States, in Miami, FL, because First Lady Hillary Clinton said she wanted a White House dining experience. Then in 1997, we did the G8 meeting in Denver where I got to meet Boris Yeltsin, who liked his vodka. Other than these, the military travels with the President and they provide the cooking. We would only do cooking at Camp David if the President personally requested that we come, mostly when a head of State was being hosted. I used to really like going to Camp David and went every chance I got. When the President just goes up there by himself with his family, the Navy takes care of the food and maintains the cabins. We usually prepared the food at the White House and packaged it up like a catering gig and brought it there. The first time I went there, I experienced the problem of asking for more strawberries. It took the guys about an hour and a half to get off the mountain and go down to the market in Hagerstown to get some strawberries. After that, we made sure we brought everything along.
OPN Connect: During your times as White House Chef did you also cook for your own family?
Chef Moeller: Absolutely! I always enjoy cooking. One of my favorite things to do is go out to the market and see what’s fresh, select what looks good and put them all together. I love on-the-fly type cooking, especially for family and for friends. There was one time when President Clinton came back from a trip to Rhode Island with a box of fresh lobsters that were given to him. When I opened the box, there was a huge lobster that I showed the President and First Lady. The President didn’t want to eat it so he contacted the Commerce Department and had it taken to the aquarium under the Commerce Department building. The Clintons told me that they weren’t in the mood for lobster, so I brought a couple home to enjoy with my family. Another time, I ordered lobster tails for an event and the shipping was wrong so we received them far too early. Because the tails had thawed, we went ahead and fired up the grill and the kitchen staff enjoyed a lobster feast.
OPN Connect: You talked about your dedication to pure organic gardening, First Lady Laura Bush appreciated hearing you tell her about your organic gardening methods. Can you elaborate?
Chef Moeller: During the Bush years in the White House, we had a garden at our home in Maryland from which I would bring a lot of organics to serve to the first family. I also sourced organic fruits and vegetables for White House meals from farms near where I was raised in Lancaster. In the late summer and fall, I would bring fall late summer I’d bring Lancaster peaches to the First Family one each day. Laura Bush always told me how much she appreciated that.
OPN Connect: You also write you maintain an organic home garden. How did you start?
Chef Moeller: I still do and it's always about the soil. Especially when I first started the garden, I got into some excellent organic matter to start with then was very vigilant about adding only vegetable scrap to make my own compost. The property had lots of trees and I had to dig underneath big piles of leaves for great organic soil. Especially in the earlier years, I could really see the difference. I’ve never put anything inorganic in the garden. My favorite thing in the garden is to experiment with different vegetables and fruits every year to see what worked and what didn’t.
OPN Connect: How does a chef get a job at the White House?
Chef Moeller: Actually, I put in a resume at the White House shortly after I moved to Washington, but all I got was a nice “Dear John, we’re not hiring right now” response. Later, I worked at a local French-style restaurant. The chef was French-Belgian. He knew I had worked in France and offered me a job. Through that job, I met another French chef, Pierre Chambrin, who later invited me to be his sous chef at the White House. He was looking for an American who knew French cooking, so the two-and-a-half years I’d lived and cooked in France got me in. You never know how your life experiences can help with getting a job.
OPN Connect: Did the first families ever go out for pizza or McDonald’s? Did anyone cook?
Chef Moeller: No, never. If they wanted a pizza and they let me know ahead of time, I would whip one up. I had a metal plaque that I’d put in the oven to get it nice and hot, then put dough atop to make it crispy.
Chef John Moeller joined the White House kitchen in 1992 as sous-chef to Pierre Chambrin and later, Walter Scheib, eventually acting as White House Chef in 2005. During the thirteen years he served as chef to three first families – Presidents George H.W. Bush, William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush. He graduated cum laude from Johnson & Wales in Providence, RI, with a culinary degree. After working in several New England restaurants, he spent more than two years in France learning French cuisine under some of the finest French chefs. Chef Moeller grew up in the heart of Amish country in Lancaster, PA, where he now runs State of Affairs Catering.