Up on the roof

Pub date February 28, 2007

During these past six lovely years of Bush and Cheney, one has become almost nostalgic about duels — the calling out of adversaries to settle matters of honor with pistols — even if one or both adversaries should hold high office. But the duel isn’t dead, of course; it’s just the pistols that are gone, replaced in many instances by fanged memoirs.

Walter Scheib and Roland Mesnier aren’t exactly Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, but they are Washington, D.C., figures of recent vintage, they worked together, they plainly did not get along, and now each has published a book of reminiscences that does not flatter the other. Scheib was the White House chef from 1994 to 2005, and his book (with Andrew Friedman) is called White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen (Wiley, $24.95); Mesnier was White House pastry chef from 1979 to 2004, and his memoir (with Christian Malard) is titled All the President’s Pastries: Twenty-five Years in the White House (Flammarion, $24.95).

Mesnier’s is the more unintentionally comic performance. He recounts history as a series of elaborate desserts served to the high and mighty. Scheib’s story, while briefer, carries greater significance, for he was hired by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1994 to make the White House a setting for the best in American food and wine. He stayed on through the first term of George W. Bush, even as Hillary’s culinary revolution was chucked in favor of what Scheib calls "country club" cuisine: hot dogs, fish cooked to death, and lots of beef tenderloin.

Hillary turns out to be an unexpected point of convergence for this pair of kitchen antagonists. Both men respected and liked her, and Scheib, in particular, gives us a picture of a woman who, despite a rather icy public image, understood the broad and deep meanings of food, for human sociability and health as well as for the fate of the earth. Ronald Reagan might have made it his first order of presidential business to remove Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof, but Scheib, with Hillary’s support, started growing organic vegetables up there. (Interesting factoid: far fewer insects are to be found several stories above ground, so the need for pest control in a rooftop garden is dramatically reduced.)

Memo to Hillary: if you make it, how about an organic rooftop garden and solar panels?

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com