WASHINGTON – When Ronald Reagan returned to the White House, nearly two weeks after he was shot in a 1981 assassination attempt, the president was put on a special diet to help him recover from a bullet wound to the chest. It was doctor's orders, say the chefs who worked in the White House at the time.
“He was in a lot worse shape than we knew,” recalls Mirabelle chef Frank Ruta, a member of the White House kitchen staff during the Reagan administration. “When he came back, he had to have a diet that was fairly lean, but had a lot of protein and iron” to assist with his convalescence.
Fast forward 37 years: President Donald Trump's medical team has recommended that he revise his diet, too, but only because he needs to shed some pounds, about 10 to 15 of them. The dieting advice came straight from physician and Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson during a now infamous news conference following Trump's first formal medical exam in January. You know, the news conference in which Jackson, unprompted, announced the president was “very sharp and very intact” mentally.
At his physical, the president tipped the scales at 239 pounds. This means Trump – reportedly 6 feet 3 inches tall – has a body mass index of 29.9, which technically makes him overweight. With a 30 BMI, he would officially be obese. Some, of course, have insinuated that Trump is fudging his own numbers to keep him out of William Howard Taft territory.
“He would benefit from a diet that is lower in fat and carbohydrates and from a routine exercise regime,” Jackson told reporters during the January presser. “We talked about diet and exercise a lot. He's more enthusiastic about the diet part than the exercise part, but we're going to do both.”
According to a recent Bloomberg Politics report, Trump has actually followed his doctor's advice. Bloomberg's sources say Trump has scaled back his junk food diet, which the president's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski once described this way: “On Trump Force One there were four major food groups: McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, pizza and Diet Coke.”
“One person said it's been two weeks since he saw the president eat a hamburger,” the Bloomberg reporters wrote in early March.
It's common knowledge that Trump doesn't dine out much, unless he visits the steakhouse inside the D.C. hotel that bears his name, for a well-done slab of beef with ketchup. Or he's dining at the restaurant inside his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Otherwise, the president relies on the cooks of his White House kitchen, led by executive chef Cristeta Comerford.
So how have the White House cooks gone about creating the new low-fat menus? And does Trump still have opportunities to cheat? These were among the questions I wanted to ask Comerford or someone on her staff. But I couldn't get through the front line of defense, the White House press team. I received no responses to my emails.
Instead, I turned to former White House chefs for insights. They say that the White House kitchen enjoys a lot of freedom in creating weekly menus, even those with special dietary restrictions. The first family typically gets involved with menu planning only during special events, such as state dinners. With that said, the White House cooks invest a lot of energy trying to figure out what the president, first lady and their children like to eat.
“This is the hardest thing when you're in the White House: (figuring out) what they like and dislike,” says Roland Mesnier, a French-born pastry chef who served five different U.S. presidents. “These people that come with the president, they think they know everything. ... They know nothing.”
White House cooks, Mesnier says, have to be observant. They must inspect the plates that come back to the kitchen to determine what food was a hit, and what wasn't. They must also befriend the White House butler, who watches over meals to fulfill any requests the first family may have during lunch or dinner. The butler can provide countless insights into what the president and first lady really like.
Mesnier learned, for example, that Nancy Reagan liked a small portion of calf's liver, medium-rare, served with balsamic reduction. She knew it was a good source of iron, Mesnier recalls. She often requested it when she dined alone.
But chefs can sometimes read too much into a comment, says Bill Yosses, executive pastry chef at the White House from 2007 to 2014. George W. Bush once told Yosses that he exercises so hard because of the chef's daily parade of sweets. Yosses took the comment to heart and prepared a “spalike” unsweetened baked apple for dessert.
“He was not happy,” Yosses says about Bush. “Basically, he came back to me with, 'Don't ever make that again.' ”
However they glean the first family's tastes, the White House chefs will write weekly menus, which are then submitted to the East Wing for the first lady's approval. She may edit them and send them back. She may do nothing to them. It all depends on the first lady's engagement in the family's dietary habits.
“For the most part,” Ruta remembers about the weekly menu, “it would have no changes.”
Even when the president's physician recommends a special diet, as Jackson did for Trump, it's still up to the White House kitchen to develop the menus that incorporate the new guidelines .
But what about cheating? Can a dieting president snack between meals with impunity? Can he just roll downstairs to the kitchen and raid the refrigerator?
It's a complicated question. In the residential side of the White House, the kitchen doesn't provide a lot of snacks for the first family. There may be some fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator for snacking, Ruta says. But every administration also has its preferred snacks on hand: It might be Reagan's jelly beans, Clinton's bagels (yes, bagels, says Mesnier) or every president's apparent affection for cookies and M&Ms. These treats could be found anywhere: in the residence, in the Oval Office or on Air Force One.
But mostly, say the White House chefs, it's hard for presidents to cheat under their watch. The chefs, after all, are paid to feed the president and be mindful of his health. They don't see it as their job to undermine the doctor's orders.
The White House usher, however, is a whole 'nother story. If the president calls up the usher and wants a bag of Doritos and queso dip, the usher is going to bring the president a bag of Doritos and queso dip. But what if the White House doesn't have any Doritos and queso dip?
“Well, they'd get it,” Ruta says “They'd make a trip out and get it.”