Hail to the Chef! Governors Cooks Say Job Is About Good Taste

By: - August 23, 2002 12:00 am

Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum enjoys grilled mahi mahi at dinnertime. Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles prefers salmon. And Ohio Gov. Bob Taft loves spicy Cincinnati chili. When most governors get time to eat, a chef employed by the state prepares meals at the mansion. Governors chefs say their unique job is important because they help governors entertain in style and keep their focus on the states business. 

The “first chefs” cook and bake in states with an official governor’s residence.

All but about a dozen of the 50 governors have a chef. These impresarios of the kitchen say they are required because a governor is too busy to cook, and the first family needs to be able to entertain visiting dignitaries in style.

“Everything is done over food and beverage in this country when you’re wooing people for business, or impressing them. You need professionals,” said Ryad Salamie, one of two chefs working for West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise.

In West Virginia and such other states as Nevada, food is a state-budgeted item at the governor’s mansion. But in states such as Texas, North Dakota, and Ohio, the first family foots its own grocery bill.

Some governors’ chefs have culinary training; others have no formal expertise.

“I’m not a chef, I just do the cooking,” said Linda Backer who works for North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven. “I just fell into this job.”

Backer has cooked for three governors during her 12 years as a state employee, and has adapted her menus with each change of administration. Hoeven, for example, hates mayonnaise.

“They all have likes and dislikes,” Backer said. “You have to bend.”

Backer, whose specialties include beef tenderloin and Dakota wheat bread, said all her bosses have had one thing in common: “The governors are always late.”

Governors’ chefs often cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the first family and put on afternoon cookie-and-punch receptions for mansion visitors. Their tasks also include dinner parties for groups of 20 to 60 people a couple of times a month, and occasional banquets for as many as 350 people.

West Virginia’s chefs serve meals on Lenox china with the state seal on it; many other states use plain china. A few chefs say their duties include washing dishes, or at least pots and pans. Most do the grocery shopping. West Virginia’s bill comes to about $400 a week.

Besides feeding a busy governor, chefs say their jobs also have a political purpose.

“Food is a neutral ground, and it makes people happy,” said Stefani Marnon, chef for the Alaska governor. “So if you’re sitting down and you’re having a meeting, and maybe you’re not all getting along, you’re at least sharing food which brings you together.”

Marnon said her job is to restrict the chaos to the kitchen while the meal is presented as gracefully as “a swan glides on a lake.” Marnon is busiest at Christmas time, when the governor opens the gaily decorated official mansion to the public and serves cookies and cider.

“Last year, I made over 12,000 cookies,” Marnon said. “By the time I’m done with the cookies, I’m like, if I smell any more sugar I’m going to go insane.”

Marnon’s typical days include preparing a light lunch for the first lady and cooking dinner for the governor.

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles “loves salmon and black beans. He could eat that every single day,” Marnon said. “And of course, it’s wild Alaskan salmon.”

Also true to his state’s specialty is Ohio Gov. Bob Taft: He loves spicy Cincinnati chili, said June McCarthy who has served as executive chef for six years.

States like Kansas that don’t have a governor’s chef rely on caterers for special events. At the 6,000 square-foot Kansas governor’s residence called Cedar Crest, catered meals always include some form of chocolate, Gov. Bill Graves’ favorite. Graves keeps chocolate chips in the fridge, and sometimes mixes them into his oatmeal, said Jennie Rose, the chief of staff at Cedar Crest.

Some governors, like Oregon’s John Kitzhaber, cook for themselves.

“Oregon is a state where the last thing the governor would have is a chef,” said John Coney, Kitzhaber spokesman. “It’s not in our culture.”

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