At the front door of the White House, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter greet Yugoslav President Marshal Tito and whisk him upstairs to their private living room on the second floor for a quick Scotch and water with a twist of lemon before dinner.
Downstairs, meanwhile, White House executive chef Henry Haller and his five assistants scurry among the pots and ovens. Intermittently the house phone rings in the kitchen with upstairs bulletins from maître d’ John Ficklen (7:50—the guests are in the East Room going through the receiving line; 7:54—the guests are being seated; 8:03—they’re almost all in the dining room). As zero hour approaches, Haller imperturbably watches the hot dishes being hoisted by elevator to the first floor. At 8:25 Ficklen demands, “Are you ready?” Haller nods, and the 27 specially hired black-tied waiters carrying the first course, Florida pompano Véronique, surge into the candle-lit State Dining Room. At 9:30, after the Kentucky Trappist cheese and strawberry tart have been served, Haller finally pauses for a calming toast to himself of red wine.
A state dinner may be a once-in-a-lifetime event for many of the guests, but the Swiss-born Haller, 55, has orchestrated 200 during the 12 years he has been master of the White House cuisine. He has also brought off countless less grand affairs. The Saturday before the Tito banquet for 140 VIPs, for example, Haller prepared cookies and soft drinks for 20 members of Amy’s Girl Scout troop. He even packs her brown-bag lunch on school mornings. “If a guy wants to come in here and be a prima donna, forget it,” he says. “My challenge is to keep everyone happy.”
Haller actually runs three White House kitchens: one for banquets, another one on the second floor for the First Family and a third “help’s kitchen” for the resident staff of 75. Haller does most of his work out of the 30-by-30-foot banquet kitchen, with its two enormous burners and a vat-size pressure cooker. Disdaining the Cuisinart or other food processors, Haller has only one criterion: quality. “We always want the best,” he says. “The most beautiful artichokes, the whitest mushrooms, the freshest lettuce. And you must have good pots. Cast iron are best.”
For a state dinner, Haller gets a briefing memo from the State Department on the guest of honor (“It usually says, ‘He eats everything’ “) and confers on the final menu with the First Lady. He then orders a week ahead from merchants checked out by the FBI. At the last minute Haller takes precautions of his own. “The official food taster?” he winks. “That’s me!”
He also personally prepares many of the Carters’ private meals—paid for out of the President’s own pocket. Recalling the tastes of the First Families he has worked for, Haller says, “They all loved American food—steak and hamburgers” and were apprehensive about calories. The Nixons also were partial to broiled red snapper and classic French dishes. Gerald Ford always asked for seconds of Haller’s chicken cordon bleu, stuffed with Swiss cheese and ham. The Carters, predictably, prefer down-home dishes: fried chicken, ham, corn and fresh string beans—”not cooked too much.”
“More tapioca pudding” was the order he remembers from his first White House boss, LBJ, who apologized in an appreciative note to Haller that the job often reduced a classically trained chef to being “a short-order cook.” Haller apprenticed at 18 in the Swiss resort of Davos, encouraged by his father, a factory executive and gourmet, who advised, “As a chef, you could travel a lot.” “My idea was always to come to the U.S.,” Haller recalls. After beginning as vegetable cook at Montreal’s swank Ritz-Carlton, he eventually wound up commanding a staff of 60 at Manhattan’s now departed Ambassador Hotel. In 1966, hearing that one of his former guests was searching for a new chef, Haller applied, and Lady Bird Johnson took him on—for a six-month trial.
Haller is now so established that he has a room on the third floor of the White House. But home is a four-bedroom split-level 20 miles away in Potomac, Md., where Haller lives with his wife, Carole, 46, whom he met when she was a summer waitress on Martha’s Vineyard, and their four children. The live-in kitchen is the center of action (“We’ve only used the dining room twice in 12 years”). Family favorites include fondue and minced veal, usually cooked by the pro.
Haller manages to keep his weight at 185 by jogging, swimming, skiing, golf and daily calisthenics. He is an irrepressible photographer, and his snaps tend to be of food and the occasions he has presided over. He considers it “unethical—a no-no” to publish a cookbook or his scrapbook, which chronicles two White House weddings, Queen Elizabeth’s Bicentennial visit and—his most memorable assignment—the dinner hosted by President Nixon in 1973 for 1,300 Vietnam POWs. “You could tell how much it meant for every one of those men to be there,” says Haller. “That’s when it is important to remember that this is not a restaurant or a hotel. The White House is a home.”