By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
We like tenure in the workplace. Well, at least I do.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s something to be said for the person whose experience has come from many positions over their career. But when regular turnover in a position is the norm for years, maybe decades, yet in the midst of all that, one individual is able to retain tenure for an extended period of time, it speaks to a number of qualities that that individual may possess that others do not.
Henry Haller was the longest tenured white house chef who presided over the kitchen of five presidents: LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Sure, his talent initially put him in his position. But as those around him would say, it was a host of other personality traits, such as consistency, flexibility, reliability, and maturity that allowed him to gain purchase in such an exalted position.
We all know the old adage that kitchens are hot. Both figuratively and literally. But I can’t imagine a hotter kitchen than the one in the White House.
But it was two of those traits in particular that aided chef Haller in excelling at his position.
He was extremely talented of course. But unlike his predecessor, Rene Verdon, and many chefs in general, he was known for being very open and flexible.
After enduring the food and menus of President Lyndon B. Johnson for two years, chef Verdon, who Jackie Kennedy hired, finally resigned when he was asked to prepare a state dinner consisting of spareribs, cold garbanzo bean puree and spoon bread.
Born in Switzerland in 1923, Haller followed the usual path of a traditionally educated and trained chef. In other words, he started young.
He first apprenticed in a hotel in the city of Bern at the age of 16. From there, he bounced around throughout Europe until he received an offer to stay within the company, but move to Montreal. It would get him much closer to America, so he happily agreed.
Like many European chefs of his era, he had visions of a career in the U.S. From Phoenix to New York City, Haller moved from hotel to hotel, each time advancing his position. And it was the Ambassador Hotel in Manhattan that his cooking got the attention of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.
Think of the people he must have met. From dignitaries, to celebrities. From generals to diplomats.
What is sometimes lost on those not in the profession is that it is challenging at times to be a reactionary chef. Many chefs are at their best when they are in a creating mode. That is to say, when they are conceptualizing recipes, dishes and entire menus or banquets on their own terms. But the roll of a White House chef also consists of coming up with everything from the first family’s daily favorite meals, to entire state dinners at the request of either the president or the first lady.
And though chef Haller was beloved by both staff and first families, he did learn early on something he carried with him the rest of his time in the White House. After being scolded by President Nixon after he said in an interview that the president likes to mix up his own martinis, Haller learned to, no matter what, “keep your mouth shut.”
Henry Haller was white house executive chef from 1966 until his retirement in 1987. Chef Haller died last month at the age of 97.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman restaurant group.