Cristeta Comerford: White House Executive Chef

Photo credit: White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford prepares dishes of Quinoa Black Bean and Corn Salad for the Epicurious Kids’ State Dinner in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, Aug. 20, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

Since 2005, Chef Comerford has held the tremendous responsibility of cooking for the most esteemed leaders around the world. First appointed by Laura Bush, it was Comerford’s preparation for a 134 person dinner in honor of India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that clinched the job. Becoming the White House Executive Chef broke two historical streaks in one: she is the first ethnic minority and woman in the position. Behind this significant accolade lies a simple story that originates in the Philippines, where her large, food-oriented family and loving mother embraced guests with the gesture of cooking.

—Diana Emiko Tsuchida

Is there a childhood memory that sparked your passion for food?
Coming from a family of eleven children, cooking was an ongoing activity in the kitchen.  My mother’s famous words to her children or our houseguest is, “You must eat!”  Food was her love language.  Everything revolved around the kitchen, and she made sure her kids learned from her.  From the time I was in third grade, I helped my mom in the kitchen, and during my summer vacation, she would send my sisters and me to my grandparents’ home town.  They were farmers, and they raised all sorts of animals, including chicken, pigs and cows.  They even had a fish pond where we would catch many fish at any time.  I grew up with a great exposure to fresh ingredients, great cooks (my mom!), and great company (my huge family).

How do you tackle cooking for global audiences? What inspires a menu for dinners and events?
Having the opportunity to travel to various parts of the world gave me tremendous exposure to global cuisines and culture. These food memories and experiences have become a part of my repertoire. Washington, DC is also replete with numerous ethnic restaurants that opened up my palate to new flavors, profiles, and combinations. Connecting with talented chefs has also widened the knowledge and techniques. All of these come into play when a menu is written for a particular event or dinner.

What’s your advice to chefs who identify as part of a minority and want to enter this industry?
I would say, dig deep into yourself and your culture because all of these will become the shape of who you are as a chef. All of your food memories, experiences, and mentors are the best assets you have if you want to enter this industry.

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OtM logosThis story is a part of Off the Menu: Asian America, a multimedia project between the Center for Asian American Media and KQED, featuring a one-hour PBS primetime special by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), original stories and web content.