When Mrs. Bush axed then-White House chef Walter Scheib last winter (see the March 15, 2005 RH e-newsletter), the board of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs organization got into the act, urging the appointment of a woman.
Bonnie Moore, head of the WCR Board, made a strong argument for putting a woman in charge of the White House kitchen. "The White House kitchen has long been based on the male European model," she said at the time. "We've only recently had an American in the White House," she added, referring to Scheib. "Now we need a woman."
Finding one wasn't easy. White House sources told the New York Times that none of the high-profile female chefs suggested by WCR wanted any part of the job.
How come? One reason was money. The White House chef job pays between $80,000 to $100,000 per year-less than most big-time chefs earn now. White House executive chefs used to get juicy overtime pay for doing big dinners and other late-night events; they don't any more.
Another factor was the nature of the work. It's like being a private chef for a rich family, only you get to put on a ritzy dinner for important international guests from time to time. Politics come into play, too.
It all added up to something Spicer, for one, didn't want. "It's not necessarily the administration. That's not the primary reason," she said. "It's more of a catering job, and I don't really think that suits my talents."
But these factors didn't deter "hundreds" of potential White House chefs from throwing their hats into the ring. An interview process narrowed the field down to three: Chris Ward of the Mercury Grill in Dallas; Richard Hamilton, most recently chef at the Spiced Pear in Newport, RI; and Comerford. These three then prepared tasting lunches and dinners at the White House.
What kind of food did they make? "They told me that barbecue and Tex-Mex would be very little of what they're looking for," finalist Hamilton told the Washington Post. "They talked about famous, high-end restaurants and showed me ideas from cookbooks. They said they wanted to be wowed."
He also mentioned that it was difficult working with the White House kitchen staff during his initial tryout dinner "because, quite frankly, they wanted the job."
After what turned out to be a six-month-long search process, the 41-year-old Comerford was offered the job. She's a native of the Philippines who holds a degree in food technology from the University of the Philippines. She is married and has one child.
Outgoing White House Chef Scheib endorsed the decision to promote from within. "It's not about being a man or a woman; it's that she's an exceptional chef." He called her "definitely the best candidate they could have chosen."
The WCR sure thought so. Here's group president Bonnie Moore's statement after the Comerford appointment was announced:
"Women Chefs and Restaurateurs applauds the White House and First Lady Laura Bush for taking an unprecedented step to hire the first woman as executive chef for the prestigious White House kitchen. With the appointment of Cris Comerford, First Lady Laura Bush is making a visionary decision that will provide women in culinary professions around the world with a strong role model in the nation's most visible kitchen.
"As Executive Chef Comerford steps forward into this new leadership position, women chefs across America take a step forward as well. More than 50 percent of the food service industry workforce are women, yet few reach the upper echelons of their profession. This appointment represents a triumph for the more than 1.5 million women in culinary professions."
At least Comerford's working style is in synch with that of her new employers. Immediately upon learning she had won the position, she went on a long vacation to Mexico.