History of the White House Chef

A Brief History of White House Chefs

White House Chef
A White House pastry chef is pictured here. Having a team of chefs has been a White House tradition since the early 1800s. Charles Ommanney/Getty Images News

Being president comes with lots of perks. An airplane for use on the job. A tricked-out, million-dollar bus for use on the campaign trail. A decent salary and retirement benefits, yes, but the potential to make millions writing books and giving speeches for years after leaving the White House.

You also get a personal chef. Someone to cook you three square meals a day. And it's nothing new.

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The history of the White House chef dates back to the early 1800s, when President Thomas Jefferson, a noted food and wine lover, was elected to lead the nation. Jefferson was the first president to live the White House for a full term, and he hired a French chef to prepare meals for himself and official state dinners.

The tradition of keeping a White House chef - in fact, a team of chefs - remains alive and well today. In fact, the president's personal chef is paid a six-figure salary. One personal chef to the Obamas, for example, was paid $125,000 a year, according to data made public by the White House.

Role of the White House Chef

The White House chef and her team of chefs are responsible for preparing the day-to-day meals of the president and his family and their guests. They are also expected to make the food and arrangements for official state dinners held at the White House. They also tend the official White House garden and build the presidential gingerbread house.

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According to the White House, the kitchen has the capacity to cook dinner for 140 guests and appetizers for about 1,000 diners. 

Role in Politics and Policy

Occasionally the White House chefs step into the national political dialogue, as did Obama's personal chef Sam Kass, whom Politico described as the nation's most powerful chef.

"He has turned his gig into a political juggernaut, driving the administration’s aggressive food platform, from school lunch reform to mandatory nationwide calorie labeling and banning trans fat," wrote Politico.

Typically, though, most White House chefs blend in with the rest of the president's staff. That is to say, they work endless hours and receive little public attention.

First White House Chef 

The first White House chef was hired by President Thomas Jefferson. His name was Honoré Julien. Julien worked as the White House chef form 1801 to 1809.

"When Jefferson took office in 1801, he chose to make the White House into the most interesting social center of the new capital. His staff included Chef Honore Julien – a 42-year-old Frenchman – setting a precedent that remained until 1992, when the Clintons employed the first American chef," wrote Brooke Brantley, a professor of culinary arts at who described Jefferson as the nation's "first foodie."

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A typical evening meal in the Jefferson White House in the early 19th Century took place beginning at 4 p.m. and consisted of "a quarter of bear, a French-style partridge-and-sausage specialty, a custard dessert, and European wines served with fruits, nuts, and olives," according to A Well-Ordered Household’: Domestic Servants in Jefferson’s White House by Lucia Stanton.