Chef Henry Haller was the Executive Chef at the White House for twenty-one years and through five presidents – Johnson, Nixon Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I’ve used his cookbook, which he wrote after leaving the White House, many times. Every person who works in the Residence has a unique vantage point from which to view contemporary American history, but Chef Haller may have more to tell than most: he actually lived in the White House for his first six months on the job. He was moved into a third floor bedroom when he arrived, and was often awakened by the sound of the American flag being hoisted outside his window each morning. That puts a whole new spin on the term “government housing.”
In his time at the White House he produced 250 state dinners, and cooked for five very different presidents and their families. What an extraordinarily flexible chef he must have been, especially when one considers the temperamental nature of the chefs we see on television today. Lyndon Johnson’s social secretary, Bess Abell, once told me that when Chef Haller prepared his first state dinner, she was alarmed at how quiet the kitchen was – so quiet that she thought he had forgotten the dinner was that night! But what she found instead was a calm and experienced executive chef who knew how to run a kitchen with Eisenhower-like efficiency. He was so prepared for the dinner that there was nothing left to do in the kitchen except wait for the guests to arrive!
The recipe I’ve used the most from his book, The White House Family Cookbook, is Richard Nixon’s favorite meatloaf. I’ve made a few tweaks to the original recipe. We have it with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, rather than with a tomato puree. It may not be the lightest fare, but on a cold, wet night it’s exactly the right thing to eat. I never met Richard Nixon, but you have to admire his taste in meatloaf.