In 2002, when President George W. Bush choked on a pretzel, former White House chef John Moeller thought he was out of a job. He did, after all, serve the offending salty snack for the president's Sunday afternoon football game, after recommending the "best tasting" pretzels from a bakery in his hometown of Lancaster, Penn.
"I couldn't believe a pretzel did this to a sitting president of the United States," Moeller recalls of the incident, nicknamed "pretzelgate" at the time. "Anything could've happened. Secret Service didn't tackle me or anything."
Moeller, speaking from a catering service at a Houston hotel ("we have 100 pounds of lamb simmering in the pot," he says), is full of stories about kitchen drama at the White House. For 13 years and three presidential administrations, the White House sous chef prepared dishes for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and high-profile foreign dignitaries. On Saturday, April 18, Moeller will lead a dinner and cooking demonstration at Hugh's Catering in Oakland Park, with a three-course meal drawn from his new cookbook, "Dining at the White House: From the President's Table to Yours."
Moeller says Saturday's dish, which will be served for 100 guests, includes herb-crusted chicken breast covered in white-wine-butter sauce, mushroom soup, a mixed-green salad with mustard-shallot vinaigrette and a flourless chocolate torte.
The torte, as with every recipe from Moeller's book, bears a high-tension backstory worthy of reality TV: On the morning of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, Moeller says the White House called him at his home with a short charge.
"'President coming back from Camp David, six for lunch,' and then a 'click,' which is their version of, 'Hey, John, can you come in to work today?' "Moeller, 53, recalls. "I knocked out a quick chicken-tortilla-lime soup. They liked that, and the first lady [Laura Bush] comes in and says, 'I feel so bad for what happened. We're having 18 for dinner tonight.' When I realized I didn't have food for 18 people — I was the only chef there — I improvised and thought, 'Oh, my goodness. What am I going to do for dessert?' I fixed the torte and added a raspberry sauce. I was able to make a good ending to a bad day."
Moeller, who now operates the Lancaster-based State of Affairs Catering, says cooking at the White House demanded a chef who could plan massive state dinners on short notice, but also the occasional comfort food. He remembers a chicken enchilada recipe the Clintons called their favorite, while the younger Bush went all-American: Moeller's Lancaster County chicken pot pie. The senior Bush, meanwhile, favored California-style sushi rolls with miso soup.
Many times, Moeller says, catering to heads of state proved a chore. The Italian prime minister, to his puzzlement, put "onions, garlic and tomatoes" on his list of dietary restrictions. "How is that even possible?" he muses. George H.W. Bush famously banned broccoli from White House menus. And in 2005, former first lady Nancy Reagan asked for fresh Dover sole for dinner. The White House was fresh out.
"All the Dover sole I could find in D.C. that day was frozen. I couldn't believe it," Moeller recalls. "So I called my guy in Boston, and he had plenty. He had it on the next shuttle to D.C., so I sent my Secret Service guy, and he drove over to Reagan National Airport, appropriately enough, to pick it up. I was able to serve her a piece of fresh dover sole that evening."
John Moeller will host a dinner, demonstration and Q and A 6:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at Hugh's Catering, 4351 NE 12th Terrace, in Oakland Park. Tickets, which benefit Hospice by the Sea Foundation and Hospice of Palm Beach County Foundation, cost $150 per person. Call Mary Coleman at 561-416-5037 or go to HPBCF.org/Events/Broward-Whitehouse.