Hail to the chefs | Monocle

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Alex Johnstone says that he was “flying blind” to begin with. The head chef for Justin Trudeau had been plucked from a small-town restaurant near the Canadian prime minister’s cottage in Québec. Recognising the importance of this new world took some time. “As you start doing more and more larger events, the gravity of the job slowly dawns on you,” he tells Monocle. Whereas a restaurant is all about the chef’s own creations, suddenly, “it’s not about you any more”. In his first year, Johnstone received a baptism of fire when he found himself cooking for Joe Biden, who is famously a lover of ice cream. “We were searching all the resources we could to find out every detail about what kind of ice cream he likes.” 

What Johnstone didn’t know at the time is that there’s an exclusive club of contemporaries – chefs to the world’s heads of state and government – for just these sorts of culinary predicaments. “Heads of state have the red phone; we have what we call a blue phone,” says Christian Garcia, chef to Prince Albert II of Monaco and president of what’s known as the Chefs des Chefs Club. “When we have an official lunch or dinner coming up, we can ask each other, ‘What’s your boss’s favourite dish?’” 

That exchange of information is a core function of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, made up of just one member from any country: the personal chef of that nation’s head of state or government. Founded in 1977 by Gilles Bragard, a French designer of chef’s uniforms, the umbrella organisation is based in Paris but holds annual summits for its members in different capitals; the latest, which Monocle attended in November, was hosted in Washington. The summits are a chance for this elite group of chefs, who usually work in the background, to step forward and take centre stage. Over the years these summits have been attended by US presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, and world leaders from Narendra Modi to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Group photo in Washington 
Morocco’s Rachid Agouray (second from left), the US’s Cristeta Comerford (centre) and Chefs des Chefs founder Gilles Bragard
South African president’s chef, Elmarie Pretorius
Chefs at DC Kitchen

Every event also involves giving something back by highlighting a culinary cause or charity. In November, the group visited DC Central Kitchen, a local non-profit. The club of esteemed chefs were put to work cutting up pumpkin, squash and other seasonal vegetables, which they cooked alongside students from underprivileged backgrounds, some of whom have been given a second chance after serving time in prison. Willem-Pieter van Dreumel, chef to King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, was struck by the workload: 10,000 meals prepared every day for the poor in the US capital. “I’ve never had to do these kinds of amounts,” he says. Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, says that his organisation has had several high-profile visitors over the years and puts all of them through their paces; he describes a particularly memorable moment when Bill Clinton was lunged at by a volunteer – to the horror of his Secret Service detail – because he scratched his face with a gloved hand (a sanitary sin) and tried to keep working. “We don’t really have time to be in awe,” says Curtin. Even so, he acknowledges that the visit from the Chefs des Chefs Club was particularly special. “We’ve never had this many talented high-profile chefs before,” he says. “To have these chefs who are carrying out diplomacy through food on a daily basis, it just fits so well with what we do on a daily basis: trying to build community through food.”

“Heads of state have the red phone; we have what we call a blue phone”

Beyond the pageantry, for the chefs themselves the summit is simply a chance to get together and let off (metaphorical) steam. Its members range from 20-year veterans to complete newcomers who are eager to learn and soak up the experience. “Honestly, I had no idea what to expect but it has been fantastic,” Canada’s Johnstone tells Monocle at an evening reception hosted at the French ambassador’s residence. “There’s such a huge gap: a range of ages and experience. We are all serving different types of leaders: we have a prime minister, presidents, kings. It’s wild to hear the stories.”

What’s striking is the job’s variety: chefs are typically responsible for everything from bilateral summits and state dinners, to everyday meals and the health of their very important employer. The wisdom imparted by veterans is less about recipes and more about things like presentation, how to run a presidential household and the importance of diplomatic tact. “We’re all fortunate in that we have personal insight into the families that we work with but we’re also all bound by that same discretion,” says Mark Flanagan, chef to King Charles III, and before him, for 20 years, Queen Elizabeth II. Flanagan says the late queen always stressed that it was as much about the staff as the monarch, “If we look after the staff, and we look after the team, the palace functions better and in a more harmonious way.”

Joe Biden’s fondness for ice cream aside, the chefs are generally coy about their leaders’ favourite dishes. This is partly for discretion but also to avoid repetition: Flanagan says that he learned this lesson the hard way before he became Buckingham Palace’s head chef during a visit of former French president Jacques Chirac. “Everybody knew that his favourite dish was tête de veau, made from calf’s head, and I was told, ‘This is his favourite, you must make it for him.’ So I practised and practised and practised but the poor man – everywhere he went, that’s all he got!” Flanagan says. “Another good thing that can come from the club is that we can phone each other up and say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give him tête de veau.’”

What’s on the menu?

Joe Biden welcomes Anthony Albanese, prime minister of Australia
25 October 2023 at the White House

First course
Farro and roasted beetroot salad with popped sorghum in herb vinaigrette; butternut squash soup with smoked paprika and candied pumpkin seeds 

Main course
Sarsaparilla-braised short ribs; sorghum-glazed young carrots; brussels sprouts, celery root purée and carrot jus

Hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake with crème fraîche ice cream 

Alexander Valley Chardonnay, 2019; Sequel, 2019; Argyle’s Extended Tirage Brut, 2012

Such advice can range from leaders’ allergies to specific likes and dislikes. And while there’s typically a protocol team that arrives ahead of any state visit to help orchestrate high-level functions, the personal touch is key for discovering more intimate details. “If the president of France is coming to the UK, I can pick up the telephone with confidence, speak to my colleague and say to them, ‘What about breakfast?’ Nobody ever talks about breakfast, but we need to start the day right,” Flanagan says. “And I can have that absolute confidence that the information we’re getting is accurate.” In other words, leaders’ chefs take as much pride in serving up big-ticket state dinners, showcasing their nation’s culinary culture, as they do in simply keeping the official household running smoothly. “We use food as comfort for them, as sustenance,” says White House chef Cristeta Comerford. “At the same time, we use food as a diplomacy tool. You make somebody happy with food. Things fall into the right place after that.” 

Buffet reception
Macarons galore
Behind the curtain 

Elmarie Pretorius, chef to South African president Cyril Ramaphosa for the past 10 years, says that the job can be part “mind-reader”, honing your instincts and catering to your leader’s culinary moods on any given day. “We cook for important people but at the end of the day, whoever the guest is, they’re the one who I want to keep happy,” he says. In other words, the head of state is just another hungry person. 

The role of a head-of-state chef stands apart from virtually any other job in hospitality. Not least because there are real-world diplomatic implications. “The leader who arrives in your country and who wants to discover it, you can let them discover your culture through cuisine,” says Laurent Billi, France’s ambassador to Washington. He notes that a mistake during a bilateral meeting can quite literally cause a diplomatic incident, while a positive experience can smooth over relations. Billi, who previously served as France’s ambassador to Thailand, remembers having lunch with a particularly aggressive Asian foreign minister (he won’t say which country but stresses “not China”) who insisted that western Europe was in decline and Asia was on the rise. By the second course and some French wine, the tone had shifted. “Suddenly they were looking at France as a great power in terms of gastronomy. The mood and dynamic of the dinner changed after that moment,” says Billi.

“If the president of France is coming to the UK, I can pick up the telephone to my colleague and say to them, ‘What about breakfast?’”

Then there’s the culinary diplomacy aspect: food gives world leaders and their staff a lasting impression of the country they’re visiting, a responsibility that chefs from smaller countries in particular take to heart. “Cuisine is everything: it’s culture, it’s authenticity and it’s the country itself,” says Christine Dadié, chef to the president of the Côte d’Ivoire. “The chef has a chance every day to provide the person who is exploring your country with the food that allows them to discover your culture.” No more is this true than during state dinners, events attended by hundreds of guests and an opportunity for a country’s local cuisine to shine. The dishes of state dinners are chosen carefully, the menu often making national headlines and serving as a nod to cultural ties between both countries. Amit Ghotwal, chef to India’s president, offers an example from a visit of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for India’s Republic Day in 2023. Ghotwal’s menu called for a vegetable biryani, a classic Indian dish, but he married it with an Egyptian kabsa by using noodles and lentils. The result was a dish that “looks like kabsa, tastes like kabsa, but you also get the Indian flavours. That’s how we try to co-operate; it’s the best of both worlds.”

Laurent Billi, France’s ambassador to Washington
Guests include chef Jean- Jacques Bernat (on left)
Critiquing the caterers

White House chef Comerford stresses the importance of seasonality during state dinners. “We also think about the guests who are coming and the themes, nuances or flavours that are really endearing to them,” she says. “And since America is such a wonderful conglomeration of different flavours and food from immigrants, we also want to incorporate that idea into the message.” 

Presentation matters too. “When we formulate a state dinner, it’s all very considered,” she says. “Every decoration, every plate, every piece of entertainment is really thought out wisely.” Comerford adds that she takes an egalitarian approach, always putting in the same effort. “We have to make sure that no matter what country or continent or area you came from, you get the same hospitality as any other country.” That said, Comerford says that it was a particularly unique honour to host the Chefs des Chefs themselves for lunch at the White House, alongside Jill Biden, the US first lady, during November’s summit. “They really have sacrificed their hours and their time to serve others,” she says. “The least I can do is give them the best of what I can do.”

What’s on the menu?

Emmanuel Macron welcomes King Charles III
September 20 2023 at the Palace of Versailles

First course
Blue lobster and pot crab with fresh almonds and mint-coconut gel

Main course
Corn-flavoured Bresse poultry marinated in champagne; gratin of porcini mushrooms

Pélardon; 30-month comté; stichelton

Pierre Hermé’s twist on his “Isaphan”, made with pink macaron and lychee sorbet

Bourgogne Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru, 2018;

Château Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux, 2004

India’s president, Droupadi Murmu, welcomes her Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi
5 January 2023 at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi

Dal shorba (Indian take on Egyptian lentil soup); rajgira doodhiya kebab (deep-fried amaranth and hung curd medallions); tandoori aloo (stuffed potatoes)

Main course
Paneer methi malai (cottage cheese with fenugreek leaves); rogani khumb (mushrooms in tomato gravy); chaunka bajra matar (pearl millets and peas); broccoli corn jalfrezi; dal raisina (lentils and tomatoes); dahi gujiya (lentil medallions); subz koshari (Indian take on Egyptian koshary); bread

Jalebi with rabri (Indian counterpart to Egyptian meshabek); ragi laddoo (Sweet bites made from finger millet); seasonal fruit

Mint tea or coffee 

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