Cristeta Comerford is the first woman and the first person of color to work as the White House executive chef.
Who Is Cristeta Comerford?
Cristeta Comerford studied food technology in the Philippines before emigrating to the United States when she was 23. She later became a naturalized citizen and started her American culinary career working at hotels near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. She worked as a chef at two hotels in Washington, D.C. before being recruited as a White House assistant chef in 1995.
In 2005, Comerford was promoted to White House executive chef by First Lady Laura Bush; she was the first woman and the first person of Asian descent to hold this position. Comerford has worked at the White House under presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. She is married to fellow chef John Comerford, with whom she has a daughter.
Cristeta Comerford was born on October 27, 1962, in Manila, Philippines. She grew up in Manila’s Sampaloc neighborhood with 10 siblings: six half-brothers, one half-sister and three full sisters. She was the second youngest child in her family. Her father, Honesto Pasia, was a school principal, and her mother, Erlinda Gomez, was a dressmaker.
Comerford said her mother was an excellent cook growing up and raised her daughters to appreciate culinary skills. The family often had access to fresh ingredients from Comerford’s grandparents’ farm.
Education and Move to the United States
Comerford studied food technology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. She left before completing her degree because she obtained a visa from the United States, where her brother, Juanito Pasia, was already working. Comerford immigrated to the United States when she was 23, along with several family members who arrived in Chicago.
Career as a Chef
One of Comerford’s first jobs was overseeing the salad bar at a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which resulted in her brother dubbing her “salad girl.” She worked at another hotel around O’Hare before becoming a chef in the restaurants of two Washington hotels: Le Grande Bistro at the Westin Hotel and the Colonnade at the former ANA Hotel.
Comerford also worked as a chef tournant (aka revolving chef) at Le Ciel in Vienna, Austria, for six months. There, she became proficient in preparing classic French cuisine.
Work at the White House
In 1995, White House executive chef Walter Scheib III hired Comerford to work as an assistant chef in the White House during Bill Clinton’s administration. After George W. Bush assumed the presidency, First Lady Laura Bush let Scheib go and began seeking a new executive chef. Comerford was one of 450 applicants for the position.
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The hiring process went on for six months, during which time Comerford and another chef handled ongoing executive chef duties at the White House. She remained in the running as the applicant pool was winnowed down, and displayed her talents by handling the menu at a July 2005 dinner for the visiting prime minister of India. The following month, Laura Bush named Comerford the new White House executive chef.
Comerford was the first woman, the first person of Asian descent and the first person of color to become White House executive chef. She was also the first executive chef to be promoted from within the White House kitchen.
After Barack Obama was elected president, Comerford stayed on as executive chef. First Lady Michelle Obama soon installed a garden on the White House lawn, and Comerford began adjusting her menu to take advantage of the freshly grown ingredients. “We have beautiful produce growing basically in our backyard, calling our name and saying ‘Hey, I’m ready to be cooked today,'” Comerford once told CNN.
When President Obama attended a state dinner in the Philippines in 2014, he praised Comerford as one of the millions of Filipino-Americans contributing to the United States. After Obama’s two terms, Comerford continued as executive chef while Donald Trump held the presidency and remained when Joe Biden became president.
As the White House executive chef, Comerford earned entry to the Club des Chefs, a group comprised of chefs working for heads of state including presidents, royalty and prime ministers. The society holds annual meetings at which recipes and culinary knowledge are shared.
What Does the White House Executive Chef Do?
As White House executive chef, Comerford oversees five other chefs and additional kitchen staff. Her work calls for adaptability, as she concocts everything from elaborate state dinners to presidential late-night snacks. For religious occasions such as Hanukkah, the White House kitchen is modified to adhere to kashrut laws in order to ensure that kosher food is properly prepared.
How Much Does the Executive Chef at the White House Make?
In this job, Comerford’s starting salary was around $100,000 a year. She does not get paid overtime.
Comerford relies on her taste and years of experience in the kitchen and doesn’t depend on measurements while cooking. The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Around the Globe contains some of Comerford’s recipes.
Marriage and Family
Comerford’s husband, John, is a fellow chef. She said her husband’s support helped make it possible for her to succeed in her post at the White House. The couple has a daughter, Danielle.