Amy Perry, The New York Times Magazine, July 31, 2013
Last weekend, 20 members of the Club des Chefs des Chefs, an international organization made up entirely of personal chefs to heads of states, gathered in New York City for their annual epicurean summit. Their host was Gilles Bragard, a Frenchman who founded the organization in 1977 after making his fortune in service-industry uniforms. Their guide was Cristeta Comerford, the White House’s executive chef, who would lead them on farm visits in Westchester County and Pennsylvania, and in meetings in New York and Washington, D.C. with leaders like Ban Ki-moon and President Obama. But their first stop, last Saturday, was Xavier Mission, a homeless shelter and food pantry on West 16th Street, where they fed lunch to the hungry.
Squeezed into a small commercial kitchen, the cooks were the picture of international cooperation as they prepared the 10-course buffet, each wearing a starchy white chef’s jacket with his homeland’s flag on his collar and its seal over his heart. Two Italians paddled a vat of saffron risotto, while an Indian melted bricks of butter into a tub of curry chicken. Their colleagues served as sous chefs, stirring sauces; others formed the cleaning crew, washing dishes and mopping up. The sounds of clanging stainless-steel bowls were accompanied by cooking instructions and laughter in a symphony of languages and accents.
“Take my knife,” Comerford exclaimed at one point to Ulrich Kerz, Angela Merkel’s chef. “Most of us are traveling overseas,” she explained, “so we can’t carry our own knives.”
But when it came to the garam masala that India’s Machindra Kasture used in the main course, a heavenly butter chicken dish, the chef left nothing to chance. He imported the blended powder of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and fennel in his carry-on. When he was stopped and questioned at Kennedy Airport, he told the customs agent, “I’m a chef, and I’m cooking for President Obama.”
“This is the fanciest meal ever made in this kitchen,” declared Everett Howard, the Mission’s own head chef, when lunch was ready. An informal poll of the guests rated the Indian entree, along with America’s chopped salad, a summer vegetable medley sprinkled with candied pecans and tarragon dressing, and Germany’s dessert, a poppy cake topped with pumpkinseed oil mousse, as the day’s favorites.
“Diplomacy through gastronomy — first I thought this was a gimmicky concept, and I was skeptical,” said Cassandra Agredo, the Mission’s executive director. “But one in five New Yorkers doesn’t have enough to eat. You can’t educate hungry children. You can’t have peace or security without food. So they might have the right idea.”