Skip to main content

A Fair Country Cook Meets The President

June 2024
6min read

When I was the chef at the Hotel Cortez in El Paso, Texas, in the spring of 1963, word arrived that President Kennedy would spend a night at the hotel later that year. I would be preparing meals not only for his party but for the President himself. I decided to design a commemorative dinner, a menu strictly in JFK’s honor, and after giving the matter lots of thought, I devised a meal composed of ingredients that were either grown or processed in the immediate vicinity of El Paso.

I never would have believed the amount of preparation necessary for an overnight stay by the President. We had a suite repainted and a local furniture company come in and outfit the rooms with French Provincial furniture. About a week before the visit the Secret Service moved in. They studied the route from the airport. They made a fire inspection and a security check of the hotel. They planned an escape route from the presidential suite through the main kitchen and included me in the escape plan, which flattered me no end.

Two agents asked me to show them the kitchen facilities. I gave them a tour of the dishwashing department in the basement, the storerooms and walk-in refrigerators, the bakeshop, the salad department, and the main kitchen. They seemed impressed. Then they dropped the bombshell: “We will be bringing two Navy cooks out of Washington to cook for the President. We hope we can count on your cooperation and help.”

I mumbled something as we continued to walk about. Then I began to get mad, so angry that I actually became calm. Having satisfied themselves that my kitchen would be adequate for the two Navy cooks, the Secret Service agents began to make their way to the exit. As we came to my office door, I asked them to step inside.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “you are looking at an American chef who has worked for forty years to perfect himself in his profession. If the President of the United States comes to this American hotel, in the United States of America, where there is an accredited American chef, and he brings two Navy cooks along with him to prepare his food, then I am going to be insulted not only for myself but for every American chef in every American hotel in the country. What’s more, as soon as the presidential party clears the hotel, I’m going to squawk loud and long to the press about the insult. If you want to have me relieved of my post, you are welcome to do so. However, that will not change my mind.

“On top of that,” I concluded, “I’m a pretty fair country cook, and I don’t believe you can bring anyone out of Washington who can beat me.” They replied they were carrying out the policy of the agency; they were sorry, but there was nothing they could do about it.

I was miserable. This was the biggest letdown of my career. I felt I had to do something. Then, like a flash, it dawned on me. Why not bake a cake? I began to plan what would be on it: highlights of the President’s political career; the name of every school he’d ever attended; sugar replicas of PT-109 and his book Profiles in Courage ; a scale model of the rocking chair he used in the Oval Office; and on top a lop-eared Democratic donkey.

In the center of the lobby stood a defunct water fountain that had been dismantled and made into a table with settees all around it. I decided to put the huge cake on this table so that the President would be sure to see it.

I started frantically on the cake. All the sugar work had to be done ahead of time so it would dry and harden, and I didn’t have many free hours in which to do it. A dozen times I vowed to forget the whole thing: If I wasn’t good enough to cook for him, then I certainly didn’t want to make him a cake. But in the end I found myself determined to make such a beautiful cake he would be sorry he hadn’t let me fix his meals. When the cake was almost done, I sent for Paul Burns, the Secret Service agent in charge during the President’s visit, showed it to him, and told him what I had in mind. Paul nixed the idea.

“Why? “I asked.

“Because,” he said, “if the President sees that cake, he’ll spend thirty minutes in the lobby looking at it, and we just don’t want him exposed that long. Put it on the mezzanine. At least the press corps will see it, and if we have a chance, we will try to take the President by it later on.”

The mezzanine! My cake hidden on the mezzanine! This guy Kennedy was really hard to get along with.

The morning of his arrival I was preparing fresh fruit for the President when Paul Burns came up to me. “You know, Chef,” he said, “we looked into your background pretty good, and we found out you are a pretty fair country cook. So if you promise that you yourself will take care of the President’s food personally, we’ll pull out of your kitchen and leave it up to you.”

I finished the fruit bowls and set up the cake on the mezzanine. By the time I finished, there was cheering and whistling outside the hotel. I went to a window and saw the President getting out of his car. He waded through a sea of people shaking hands, passed under the marquee, and then he was walking briskly over to the desk to flatter the hotel with a token registration. Suddenly he looked up and saw the cake. Leaving his party, he bounded up the twelve steps two at a time and landed in front of me with his hand extended. He seemed fascinated with the cake. I explained to him how we made the sugar replicas. He asked, “Why is it that you see so few things like this anymore, Chef? Is this, like so many other things, becoming a lost art?” I replied that it was, that youngsters no longer had the patience to become proficient at it.

A few hours later George Thomas, the President’s valet, called to say the President would see me in his suite to discuss his dinner. I took a copy of my commemorative menu, a copy of our regular menu, and a pad on which I had listed some other special dishes.

The President rose from his rocking chair, shook hands, and asked me to sit down. I had been expecting to stand at attention while the President of the United States gave me the order for his dinner. Instead I was asked to pull up a chair.

The President had a copy of the commemorative menu in his hand. “It says here,” he began, “you designed this dinner especially for my visit. I am flattered and amazed at the ingenuity with which this dinner has been put together. Were all these items really grown or processed in this immediate neighborhood? It’s hard to believe the land we flew over on our way from White Sands could produce any of these foods.” He asked me where I was from, and when I told him, he said, “Franklin County, Virginia, is noted for the amount of moonshine whiskey that’s made there and not for famous European sauces. During one year of Prohibition, Franklin County used more sugar than the rest of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina combined, and 99 percent went into the manufacture of illicit moonshine whiskey. But some mighty fine people have also come from Virginia, including quite a few of the men who have held the office of President.” I was amazed at the ease with which he talked to me.

Finally he said, “Let me tell you, I am going to enjoy this dinner that you designed in my honor.” He hesitated a moment, as if searching for the right words. “But I must make a few minor changes for which I am truly sorry. I won’t be able to eat the fruit salad, which sounds delicious. In its place I would like to have some plain chopped lettuce, with just a little French dressing. The breads intrigue me, especially the anadama bread, which I would love to try, and the Boston brown bread, which I’m sure you included m the menu out of respect for my New England background. But I’ll have to forgo the pleasure in favor of a plain white roll with butter and, if you have it available, some apple JeIK-.” All the while lie talked I was making notes on my white pad.

“I will have five guests for dinner,” the President continued, “and you may bring the dinner up as soon as it is ready.”

In the galley my assistants and I went to work. When we had the food ready, we placed it on the plates, covered the plates with heated covers, and set them on tables. I wondered if the Secret Service agents would inspect the food. They did not. We delivered the tables and returned to the kitchen. I glanced at my watch; it was 9:15 P.M. I had now been working under intense pressure for about twelve hours. Later that evening I got a call from George Thomas telling me that the tables were ready to be picked up. He passed on the President’s compliments and lifted the cover from the President’s plate; it was almost empty. The other guests had done a good job too.

The next morning I served the President breakfast (fried eggs, bacon, toast, and more apple jelly). He presented me with some souvenirs—a PT-109 tie clasp and a bottle opener from the White House. I promised to make a cake for his second inauguration. Then his party left.

As I looked back, I thought to myself that even if I’d had the power to do so, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I thought how lucky I was, yet I had to concede that it wasn’t all luck. I had studied and worked very hard. My career suddenly took on the shape of a Horatio Alger plot: Boy starts out washing pots and pans in a waterfront saloon and finishes by preparing dinner for the President. I made my way back to my office, the happiest chef in the United States of America.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.