President’s Day Profile
The president of the United States represents people across our 50 states and leads the free world, but while in office, he lives in our neighborhood. So when a White House chef like John Moeller introduced the “fresh and local” concept, our local bounty found its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
White House chef from 1992 to 2005, Moeller grew up under the influence of the Bay. For Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, their families and unofficial and official guests, he brought a local flavor to both day-to-day meals and state dinners. In Moeller’s cooking, world leaders like Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela got a taste of the Chesapeake.
His enthusiasm for Chesapeake cuisine punctuated every part of our conversation about his new book, Dining at the White House. Each mention of an ingredient he annotates with tips on the right way to prepare it.
Returning to Washington from culinary training in France in the mid ’80s, he reacquainted himself with crabs, for which he enjoyed chicken-necking as a boy. “Steam them, never boil,” he advises. “Light breading is the key for soft shells.”
Moeller caught his first rockfish in the early 1990s. “Bake it whole on the bone for maximum flavor,” he advises. As for oysters, “Chesapeake Bay and points north produce the best,” he says.
When Moeller became a White House chef, fresh and local was a new concept. All the first families approved and enjoyed the local flavors.
President George H.W. Bush was such a fisherman that he fished the Potomac with then Sun (and later Bay Weekly) outdoors columnist Bill Burton. He “loved rockfish,” Moeller told me. His successor, President Bill Clinton, “liked his rockfish topped with Maryland crab meat.”
Crab was a favorite of Laura Bush, for whom he developed a crab au gratin dish. “Maryland crab is the best. You can definitely taste the difference,” Moeller says.
A couple of years into his tenure he was asked to do a traditional crab feast for a Congressional delegation. The menu included steamed crabs, rockfish and Eastern Shore barbecue, with all the fixings.
As well as rockfish, crabs and oysters, Maryland corn, tomatoes, beans and chickens were often on the White House menu.
These days, Moeller — now owner of a catering business in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania — keeps up his local connection.
He recently donated a catered dinner for 10 to help The Summit School, in Edgewater, in a fundraising auction. The dinner went for a record $9,000, making it possibly the most expensive dinner ever served in Bay Country.