For more than 20 years Swiss chef Henry Haller reigned over the White House kitchens, attending to the culinary desires of five United States presidents.This content was published on December 24, 2003 - 09:13
It was polenta for Richard Nixon, lobster thermidor for Lyndon Johnson, while Ronald Reagan had a soft spot for anything Italian.
Haller, who hails from Altdorf in canton Uri, retired in 1986 after two decades of banquets and receptions for kings, presidents, delegations, senators, artists and business leaders.
His White House career saw him serve five presidents: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The Swiss chef was plucked from a New York hotel and installed in the White House in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson and his wife.
He soon found that he needed not only the organisational talent to cater for huge banquets, but also the ability to satisfy the different tastes and peculiarities of each president.
“Every president was different,” he recalls. “I noticed that there were more banquets while the Democrats were in power; the Republicans were much more selective with their invitations.”
Haller says that while the five presidents had their favourite dishes, as a rule they liked to eat simply. Starters and desserts were usually skipped for fear of putting on weight.
And despite five presidential wives stamping their mark on the rest of the White House, when it came to the kitchen Haller was left to his own devices.
“I never saw one of the presidents’ wives in the kitchen,” he says. “After the election of their husbands, the first ladies came to me with a list of their family’s favourite meals, with instructions on how to prepare them.”
But cooking for the First Family was a world away from the glittering banquets. “At least twice I cooked for 1,300 invited guests,” remembers Haller.
The first time was a dinner for veterans of the Vietnam War, and the second occasion was after the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978. He also prepared large banquets for the weddings of the daughters of Johnson and Nixon.
Passion for cooking
Haller says he inherited his passion for cooking from his mother and grandmother:
“At home we had a beautiful vegetable garden. My mother planted all sorts of things and always cooked fantastically, and I enjoyed helping her.
“But in the 1950s, when I came to the USA, it wasn’t easy to get all the ingredients. European groceries such as leek, celery, horseradish or shallots couldn’t be found in the States.
“In the White House, however, I always had the best ingredients: the choicest meat, the freshest fish, which I ordered via airplane from New York.”
And from the endless stories during his 20-year spell at the White House, Haller likes to remember one the most.
“It was the last day of Nixon’s presidency. He came into the kitchen at 7.30 in the morning, barefoot and in his pyjamas. He shook my hand and said, ‘Dear chef, I have eaten in every corner of this world but your kitchen is the best.’”
swissinfo, Anna Luisa Ferro Mäder in Washington
Now aged 80, Henry Haller lives in Washington, but still returns to Altdorf whenever possible.
Upon retiring in 1986, Haller wrote “The White House Family Cookbook”, featuring anecdotes and recipes.
He still tours the United States sharing his White House reminiscences with the elderly.
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