Chef John Moeller: A Recipe for History
After three first families enjoyed his culinary expertise, he has the perfect recipe for life beyond the White House.
The ability to transform one’s passions and interests into a prominent business is an achievement that most people work towards their entire life. However, for John Moeller, that passion was identified early and blossomed into a thriving and prestigious career. He served as a chef for three first families and their many guests, the presidencies of Bush 41 and 43, bracketing 42, the presidency of Bill Clinton.
After initially joining the White House as a sous chef in 1992, he later transitioned into the role of acting White House Chef in 2005. While serving the first families, he also prepared meals for world-renowned leaders including Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela, as well as celebrities such as Julia Child and Sophia Loren, to name just a few. There’s no pressure cooking for the likes of Mandela and Child, I’m sure. So what if the souffle collapses?
Cultivating a Culinary Art
Raised in the heart of Amish County in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Moeller realized he had a passion for cooking while still in high school. This eventually led him to pursue a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales College in Providence, Rhode Island. Graduating cum laude in 1981, he immediately landed jobs at several New England restaurants.
All aspiring chefs are soon drawn to the culinary mecca and Moeller was no different. His journey across the Atlantic occasioned two-and-a-half years of self-discovery and growth. Traveling the French countryside, he studied the fundamentals of their cuisine under world-renowned culinary experts such as Michelin star-awarded chefs Bernard Louiseau and M. Poinsot.
Following his time in France, he continued his global journey of discovery by traveling to the U.S Virgin Islands, where he was immersed in the vibrant culture of the Caribbean. While there he learned to prepare dishes with the many exotic flavors and spices of the islands and began developing his trademark use of “fresh from the garden” ingredients. In 1987, he reluctantly left the embracing Caribbean people for Washington D.C., where a chance encounter would lead to the opportunity of a lifetime.
Joining an Elite Corps of Chefs
At a networking event for French-trained chefs in D.C., Moeller met fellow chef Pierre Chambrin of Maison Blanche, who would later become a White House Executive Chef for the Bush administration. This fortuitous engagement led Chambrin to hire Moeller as his sous chef at the White House and as has often been said, “the rest is history.“ But in this case, we can add in, “genuine” history.
With his service extending over three administrations, Moeller is one of the longest tenured chefs to serve at the White House. So, how about some juicy, delicious stories from within the historic four walls? Believe me, I tried, but it appears he’s every bit the polished diplomat as he is chef. His only commitment, he told me, was to utilize his passions and acquired skills to serve at the pleasure of the president. Unfortunately, his mission statement didn’t include helping me “spice” up my story.
He fondly reminisces about his extraordinary opportunity to know the first families on a personal level, calling it “the best part of his job.” He describes each of them as “genuinely affable people who treated me with the utmost respect and appreciation.” His only regret is that the media consistently neglected to show these sociable sides that he witnessed daily.
Come on, Chef Moeller, I pressed, certainly Jenna Bush was a bit of a minx as a child. Can’t you give us a little something on her? Did she ever throw your perfectly prepared cuisine at her sister? How about President Clinton’s proclivity for an all-American hamburger and fries? Was your skill set being a little underutilized? Or what about the Bush’s Texas roots, didn’t you get a little sick of smoking up the barbecue? He didn’t take the bait. Apparently, he’s one of those rare D.C. non-leakers.
Pleasing Presidential Palates
Moeller’s job involved the day-to-day balancing act involving three basic components. One was serving the first family in a “quotidian” setting, you know, the burgers and barbeque. Another was catering the myriad of less formal events, like the traditional White House visit from a championship sports team, the Easter Egg Roll, or a congressional picnic. These usually required teams of twelve to twenty dedicated people working steadily for weeks ahead until the last plate was cleared. Finally, there were the highly formal events such as state dinners which were in the planning stages for months ahead and would mimic a table set for a king and queen, or head of state. Because they often were.
For the majority of the time, Moeller worked alone when serving the first family on a daily basis. Aside from the burgers and barbecue, he focused on preparing meals that incorporated well balanced diets, including a variety of flavorful chicken dishes, fish, occasional red meat, and his trademark of fresh ingredients. “They ate a lot of chicken!” he laughs, noting that chicken was indeed the most popular meat prepared. It seems the president doesn’t have pardon power when it comes to chickens. It’s good to be a turkey.
One of Moeller’s most memorable experiences during his tenure were the events of inauguration day. Along with welcoming a new or returning president, he highlighted the intensified emotions of bidding farewell to people with whom he’d built a deep connection over the span of four or eight years. Amongst other experiences, he amusedly recalls an event in which Julia Child was in attendance, but he was not aware until the moment she arrived. That would be like Virginia Woolf proofreading my article before submission. However, all went well, and Child wrote the White House a letter thanking them for the impeccable event.
While Moeller has been a part of many elaborate and remarkable events, he also experienced first-hand one of the worst moments in American history, the events of September 11, 2001. He somberly recalls the fateful day which cost thousands of innocent lives and changed our country forever.
“We started that day making preparations for the largest gathering of the year, the congressional barbecue,” he remembers. “While working in the kitchen, one of the butlers came in and informed the kitchen staff that a plane had crashed into one of the Towers in New York but he didn’t provide any details.”
Concerned, Moeller left the kitchen momentarily to look at the news broadcast on a nearby television in the store room to learn more. Just as he arrived to see the TV the second plane hit the other Tower. And as he was absorbing what just happened the Chief Usher Gary Walters came up to him and said that there would be no party that evening.
As he was getting the kitchen in order, the head chef at the time, Walter Scheib, was out on the South grounds setting up the food stations with a team of chefs and he heard the plane crash into the Pentagon and saw the plume of smoke right after. The Secret Service instructed everyone to evacuate the White House in fear that they could be the next target. The chef ran into the kitchen telling the news and that was when they evacuated the White House grounds.
Later, they learned one of the four hijacked planes, United Flight 93, was indeed a human-inhabited missile aimed directly at the White House. Only the heroism of the Let’s Roll passengers prevented an even larger national tragedy. The social calendar was halted and the only special events were done to entertain foreign dignitaries for lunches or dinners to discuss the situation. It would not be until the Christmas season that the White House would resume its social events. “Mrs. Bush said that we have experienced a terrible event but we need to get back to the work that we do and we could not think of a better way to do this but with the Christmas season.”
White House Memories
At the end of the 2005, Chef Moeller decided to move on to a different direction. Menu writing was the toughest part of the job. Laughing, Moeller said, “I’d go to bed at night thinking, ‘what else can I do with chicken tomorrow?” After thirteen years of service to three administrations he had felt that he had served them well.
Following the passing of his brother, Moeller came home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2010 and hasn’t strayed since. He started his own catering business, State of Affairs Catering, and in 2013 published a memoir of his time at the White House titled, Dining at The White House: From the President’s Table to Yours, which details many more of his fascinating experiences. Along with 107 recipes from official events during his time at the White House.
In July of 2018, Moeller purchased The Greenfield Restaurant & Bar in Lancaster. Wanting this transition to be different, the restaurant’s staff of thirty employees has experienced zero turnover.
Today, John Moeller has never been busier. He owns two flourishing businesses and travels the country for book-signing events, cooking demonstrations and speaking engagements. With an archive of history in his memory bank, he is using his passion to enrich the lives of others while continuing to spread joy through his culinary expertise. In short, he is truly a thriving boomer. Bon Appetit, chef Moeller.
Learn more about Chef Moeller and take a peek at his beautiful book at diningatthewhitehouse.com.