After the space shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003, chef John Moeller had to rush from his son’s basketball game to the White House to cook an unexpected lunch.
When former President George W. Bush choked on a pretzel, Moeller was ringing his hands — he had chosen and supplied the pretzel.
And on 9/11, Moeller was in the middle of preparing for the 2,000-guest Congressional Picnic when he had to pack the food away, turn off the ovens and evacuate the White House.
Most Americans see major political and historical events play out on television, on the front page of a newspaper or by word of mouth. But Moeller, a former White House chef, had a different view — from the kitchen.
Moeller, 51, was a White House sous chef from 1992 to 2005, where he cooked and served food to the families and guests of three different presidential administrations: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it was a fabulous experience,” Moeller said. “It was spectacular to watch history unfold.”
As part of a tour for his new book, Dining at the White House: From the President’s Table to Yours (LifeReloaded Specialty Publishing, $24.63) Moeller will be in Coral Gables sharing his stories and demonstrating his skill at an interactive dinner Thursday at the Biltmore Hotel and a book signing at Books & Books on Feb. 8.
Participants of the Biltmore dinner will cook and follow along with Moeller as he prepares several dishes he served during his years at the White House, including herb-crusted chicken and a flourless chocolate torte.
Candy Kakouris, executive director of membership services at the Biltmore, said the event isn’t just about the menu.
“We often have chefs come and most of the time it’s just about the food, but this is something different,” Kakouris said. “It’s more than just cooking or learning how to cook, it’s about getting some fun insider information about the White House and being a White House chef — those wonderful personal stories.”
Moeller’s book, released in September, is rife with those stories, and participants will receive a free signed copy. It reads as a mix between a memoir and an inside scoop on the White House, unveiling the workings of the kitchen, the eccentricities and tastes of the first families, the close-calls of cooking, and conversations with heads of state and celebrities who came to visit.
It also includes more than 100 recipes, as well as dozens of letters, menus and photos. Moeller said his publishers had roughly 1,800 scans of memorabilia to choose from.
“I always thought, ‘What am I going to do with these boxes of stuff?’ ” Moeller said. “It was so great to pull them out and put them in a book.”
Moeller grew interested in cooking in high school. Inspired by a book his parents bought him, The Great Chefs of France, he earned a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University before studying French cuisine and working in France. He moved to Washington in 1987, and shortly thereafter met Pierre Chambrin, who would later become head chef at the White House. Chambrin offered Moeller the job.
In a sense, returning to the Biltmore means revisiting his days at the White House. In 1994, Moeller stayed at the Biltmore to cater the first Summit of the Americas, when 34 leaders from around the world convened.
Although the first family could have used local caterers, they chose to bring their own.
“They wanted to demonstrate how important this summit was in the eyes of the United States,” Moeller writes. “Bringing the White House chefs to Miami was a way of saying, ‘This is a historic event.’ ”
For Moeller and the rest of the staff, it meant coordinating three days of meals for the delegates and their spouses at various venues. The summit culminated in a dinner at the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fisher Island, where they served Florida lobster and chanterelle ravioli, with curried key lime and coconut sauce.
Moeller was at Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute in November for the Miami Book Fair International, where he did a demonstration and tasting. But last summer was the first time he had stepped inside the Biltmore since the summit. (He was there to begin planning Thursday’s dinner.)
During his years at the White House, Moeller and his colleagues were responsible for both private family meals and large events. That meant everything from Chelsea Clinton’s request for pancakes with bottled — not real — maple syrup, to an outdoor dinner for India’s prime minister.
Moeller worked first under Executive Chef Pierre Chambrin, then Walter Scheib, and spent his final months as acting head chef. He often says he thought of himself as a dietician, responsible for the first family’s health as well as their dislikes, like former president George H.W. Bush’s well-noted distaste for broccoli. He also avoided repetition.
“When you have the same customers every day, you are challenged to change things every day,” Moeller said. “Sometimes you just stare at a blank piece of paper for a while and say, ‘What am I going to do here?’ ”
Moeller resigned in 2005 when a new head chef was about to come on board. After several life changes, including the death of his older brother and a move back to his Pennsylvania hometown, he connected with local publishers to work on the book.
Moeller said he always had an inkling he would write about his experiences.
“There is something about food I have always been drawn to and my path in life was always going to be in the kitchen,” Moeller said, “but I never just settled for what was in front of me. I was always looking to see what else is out there.”
Moeller said he still feels nostalgic about his past, but loves sharing his experiences in this new phase of his life.
“If I can entertain people a little bit, and make some food and tell my stories, then what the heck?” Moeller said.