When Cristeta Comerford was 21, she came to the United States from the Philippines and took the first job she could get, in the kitchen of an airport hotel. Ten years ago, at age 42, she became the White House executive chef—the first woman in that role. Comerford took some time to speak with Real Simple about rallying talent, keeping calm, and feeding the country’s most influential family.
Be ready to leap: “When opportunity knocks, you’ve got to open the door and grab it. The sous chef at the White House was leaving to open a restaurant. Walter Scheib, the chef at the time, said, ‘Hey Cris, are you interested?’ At that time, I had my own restaurant in D.C., The Colonnade, but I knew this would be a great opportunity and honor. So I took the position. That was back in ‘98. In 2005 the Bushes installed me as their executive chef.”
Edit your life: “If you bring too much into your day, it gets really hairy and you don’t do things well. I have an hour commute to work. It gives me time to plan. As soon as I walk in the kitchen, I know what I’m going to do. I have a list of the top ten things I have to do for the day. I love crossing things off my calendar.”
What goes around, comes around: “I was number ten in a family of 11 kids. The constant smell of food is a very vivid memory for me. My parents came from a town on the outskirts of Manila. My grandparents had a rice paddy, a fishpond, and livestock. Everything was right in their backyard. If you wanted to have chicken for dinner, you had to catch your own chicken and give it to Grandma so she could pluck it for you. In 2010, the first lady installed a four-season garden. We use a lot of vegetables from there. It’s a beautiful resource. You just walk in the backyard and pick whatever you want. It’s almost like coming back home to my grandma’s place. Everything is right there.”
Rally your team: “I always welcome everybody’s ideas—more of a coaching leader. You’re there to look at everyone’s talents and make sure you get the best of each team member. Last year, at the Africa Leaders Summit, we had to cook for 50 heads of state. We had to accommodate all the dietary restrictions, practices, and preferences. It was a huge logistical challenge. We have a lot of different ethnic backgrounds in the kitchen. The sous chefs have all these wonderful recipes in their heads.”
Appreciate thy partner: “My husband stepped back from his executive-chef job to be a work-at-home dad. He’s a great support system. He makes sure our daughter is driven to practices and doctors’ appointments, and he does the cooking Monday to Friday. He’s such a great partner. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Carve out personal time: “I’m very protective of Saturday because it’s family time. We don’t schedule anything. My daughter and I try out different recipes. She loves to bake.” Keep looking forward: “People always say, ‘The White House is the pinnacle of your career.’ But when you reach a pinnacle, everything goes downhill from there. You don’t want to call it your pinnacle. You want to call it a stepping-stone for the next great thing.”
Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert