Two Chefs Tell Tales of Cooking at the White House

They Entertained the Crowd at a Demonstration Dinner at the Octopus’s Garden
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 04, 2018
Photo by: Rick Mellerup

The demonstration dinners at West Creek’s Octopus’s Garden have proven to be a pleasing addition to the seafood restaurant’s offerings. Alas, last Wednesday chef Geoff Johnson announced the demo dinners would be on hiatus for a couple of months owing to the volume of regular meals that would be put out during the busy summer season.

But Johnson went out with a bang that night, joined by a couple of buddies he’s known for years, chefs Woody Raber and Guy Mitchell. They’re not just chefs, they’re former White House chefs!

OK, let’s make something clear from the get-go. Neither was a White House executive chef, the person responsible for preparing all of the menus and meals for the president of the United States and the First Family, including private meals, private entertaining and official state dinners. The executive chef oversees the three White House kitchens in the Executive Residence of the White House, located between the East and West Wings, and supervises a staff of five and a part-time staff of 20 to 25 assistant chefs and kitchen helpers. Desserts and pastries are delegated to a separate executive pastry chef.

No, Raber was a chef in the West Wing, where the White House offices are located. Mitchell has been a guest chef for both U.S. presidents and vice presidents. Let’s take a closer look at both.

From Submarines

To White House Mess

A New Jersey native, Raber joined the U.S. Navy in 1990. After completing basic recruit training at Great Lakes, Ill., and Basic Enlisted Submarine School in Groton, Conn., he first served on the USS Portsmouth, a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine. But he wasn’t a Navy cook at that time; instead, he was a nuclear weapons security guard.

He had wanted to be a cook when he joined the Navy, he told the crowd at Johnson’s demonstration dinner. But somebody told him he didn’t want that job – “you have to do the captain’s laundry.”

After spending watch after watch literally watching torpedoes, Raber decided he wanted to be a cook, actually a “Food Service Specialist,” after all, and switched “ratings,” the Navy’s word for job specialties. He eventually became the leading petty officer of food service on the Portsmouth.

He was transferred to the USS Dolphin, the U.S. Fleet’s last diesel-powered sub but a deep-diver. Raber was busy while aboard the Dolphin. He served as a sonar operator and a submarine rescue swimmer and earned his Deep Submerges Pin. But his main job was food service and, most important to this story, he was upgraded to a culinary specialist. That meant he could cook for and serve not only enlisted personnel, but senior officers, including admirals, as well.

Raber also had a shore assignment, at Naval Hospital Millington, in Tennessee. But his plum assignment was being picked to serve with the Presidential Food Service.

At the demo dinner, Raber told diners about his “audition” for the White House job. About 400 sailors gathered in an auditorium. He noticed some of his competitors were being asked to leave even before they had a chance for an interview. Why?

“They had acne,” he said. “There’s no acne in the White House!”

Raber, who didn’t have acne and had made it through the entire interview process, still thought he hadn’t made the cut.

“I didn’t hear anything for a year. Then I got a letter – ‘report to the White House on Monday at 8 a.m.’”

Raber became the food service purchasing coordinator for the White House Navy Mess.

Some explanations are in order. The White House Mess, run by the Navy, is a small dining facility in the basement of the West Wing, next door to the Situation Room. The mess, according to the White House, seats about 50 people at a dozen tables “adorned with elegant table linens, fresh flowers, and official White House china. It is decorated with wood paneling, nautical trim, and ship paintings.”

Table reservations are available to senior White House officials, including commissioned officers, cabinet secretaries and their guests. The mess also has a take-out window open to all White House staff members.

You may have heard about the White House Mess in the news lately. In June, Politico reported that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had overstayed his welcome there.

“EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt loves eating at the White House Mess, an exclusive U.S. Navy-run restaurant open only to White House officials, Cabinet members and other dignitaries,” read the Politico story.

“But apparently he liked it too much, and the White House asked him to please eat elsewhere sometimes.”

Pruitt apparently loved the mess not only for its top-notch food, but also for its reasonable prices. Politico reported that skirt steak runs just $10.25 and coriander beef kabobs are just $11.95 each. A cheeseburger runs just $6.35, compared to $17 at another well-known Pruitt Washington haunt.

At least nobody, and we mean nobody, eats for free. Each guest, even cabinet members, are billed at the end of the month. That’s the case throughout the entire White House. Even presidents are billed for their own groceries except for those consumed at official state functions.

Raber’s post as food service purchasing coordinator was an important one.

“You can’t just order a pizza into the White House,” he said.

No, the White House doesn’t have food tasters like Nero had. On the other hand, food has to come from trusted sources. So Raber’s job had as much to do with security as with picking the freshest and tastiest ingredients. In fact, security issues helped land Raber a White House job in the first place. He said 90 percent of the personnel working at the White House Navy Mess were submariners because they have one of the highest security clearances to be found, Top Secret with special endorsements.

Work Around

The World

The White House is a huge operation, and so is the Presidential Food Service.

The president, his family and his staff have to be fed when they’re out of the White House. The military cooks their meals at Camp David, on board Air Force One, on board Marine One, the presidential helicopter. Indeed, the Presidential Food Service even stands by at the “underground operation,” the huge top secret below-ground complex where government big shots can hide out during a nuclear attack. Raber said he’d been there; he wasn’t fool enough to reveal its location.

Remember how Raber once steered away from becoming a Navy cook because he didn’t like the idea of doing the captain’s laundry? Little did he know that people in the Presidential Food Service often have to perform valet services for the president and First Family when they are on the road.

Raber served as presidential travel advance team leader, spending more than 250 days on 75 domestic and overseas presidential trips, providing the president and First Family with “personalized services and security.”

The trip Raber remembered most was one to Africa, where President George W. Bush decided to take a safari trip. Raber was invited along, but was at the very end of the presidential party. So many vehicles were included – remember, anything associated with the White House is a huge operation – that all the animals had been scared away by the time Raber’s car approached the scene.

Raber worked at the White House from 2001 to 2008, so he was familiar with W. But Mitchell, who is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who apprenticed at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and later served as executive chef for the Philadelphia Eagles and for David Rockefeller at his Montauk Yacht Club on Star Island, was more associated with the first President Bush.

Mitchell had the crowd roaring talking about the time when H.W. decided he wanted a BLT late one night while he was staying in New York.

Remember again, everything associated with the White House is a huge operation, even something as simple as getting the president a BLT. The president’s motorcade stopped outside a diner, and the owner freaked over the sight of so many police lights and limousines. Mitchell had to talk the owner into letting him in to watch as he cooked the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. When Mitchell was finally given admittance, the owner said “I really like Reagan,” a line Mitchell repeated to Bush upon delivery of the sandwich, a line that Bush repeated to him later with a sarcastic smile.

Mitchell was part of the quail hunt on Feb. 11, 2006, when Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old attorney. But that story is nothing compared to his story from July 2007.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited President George W. Bush and his parents at the Bush family house in Kennebunkport, Maine, for two days on July 1 and 2. Mitchell was busy in the kitchen when Putin strolled in and said “kookie.” Mitchell didn’t know what he wanted from Cookie, so one of Putin’s bodyguards followed up, “Kookie, kookie.” Finally Barbara Bush walked into the kitchen – “in a bathrobe with pearls” – and figured out what Putin wanted: some of the cookies that had been prepared for the Bush grandchildren.

Let’s not forget Chef Johnson in this story. One of the things he demonstrated was how to remove the skin from salmon. The key, he said, is using a “very sharp” knife so you don’t bruise the meat.

But then he surprised his audience. He showed a large piece of salmon skin he had air-dried. Did you know, he asked, that you can fry this skin like a potato chip?

Sure enough, when the second course of his five-course dinner came out – walnut crusted wild salmon with a red chef lentil puree, sautéed baby spinach and a Dijon mustard beurre blanc – it was garnished with an edible salmon skin chip. Delicious!

It’s too bad Johnson won’t be doing another demonstration dinner until fall. Hmm, wouldn’t it be great if he could have Mitchell back to talk about the amazing amounts of food the Philadelphia Eagles can consume in one sitting?

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