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White House Chef Blends Filipino Traditions, Modern Approach

By Lauren Monsen | Staff Writer | 03 April 2012
Cristeta Comerford holding winter greens in kitchen (AP Images)

White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford holds winter greens in the kitchen of the White House on January 31, 2012, before preparing a meal with seasonal vegetables.

Washington — Since the 1970s, Asian fusion cuisine — which combines elements of different cooking traditions from across Asia — has grown ever more popular in the United States, becoming a staple of contemporary U.S. restaurants from coast to coast. White House Executive Chef Cristeta “Cris” Comerford, whose cooking draws upon her own Asian heritage, believes she knows why.

Thanks to a steady influx of Asian immigrants to the United States, Asian fusion cuisine “has become as mainstream and as American as the proverbial apple pie,” Comerford said in a recent interview. She cited “the proliferation of Asian-inspired restaurants and even food trucks” in many U.S. cities and towns, and noted the availability of specialized ingredients as more U.S. farmers begin to grow Asian vegetables.

Second-generation Asian communities are often “looking for a more Americanized version of their traditions and recipes,” she said. Also, “Asian and American chefs [are] introducing and promoting these traditions as mainstream.” Comerford predicted that Asian fusion cuisine will continue to evolve, driven by customers’ tastes and preferences.

“Consumers always demand to be not just satisfied, but tickled and entertained” by a creative approach to cooking, Comerford said.


A classically trained chef of Filipino descent, Comerford has served as White House executive chef since 2005, when she was appointed to the post by then–first lady Laura Bush. In 2009, the Obamas moved into the White House and confirmed that Comerford would remain as head chef. First lady Michelle Obama has said she and Comerford share similar views on “the importance of healthy eating and healthy families.”

Comerford is the first woman and the first Asian American to hold the position of White House executive chef.

Her own recipes, Comerford said, infuse her ancestral traditions with a thoroughly modern, eclectic spirit. Using new techniques and available ingredients, she creates a version of adobo — a Filipino dish involving meat or seafood marinated in a vinegar-garlic sauce, browned in oil and simmered in its marinade — that evokes the familiar stew of her native land while adding a fresh twist to its flavors. “My mother’s adobo, which is the Filipino national dish, is similar yet so different than mine,” she said.

Comerford’s fusion skills come in handy when she and her staff are planning high-profile dinner menus at the White House.

“When we propose a State Dinner menu for any visiting heads of state, we take into consideration, first and foremost, the first lady’s style of entertaining, [the Obamas’] preferences, the visiting head of state’s preferences, their dietary restrictions, seasons, [the White House’s] Kitchen Garden harvest and the time of year,” she said. “Once this is established, we make a proposal that would reflect an American tradition but give a nod or a twist to the visiting country’s traditions.”


The U.S. embrace of Asian fusion cuisine, and fusion cooking in general, “is mainly because of America’s diversity,” Comerford said. That popularity will continue to grow, judging by the adventurous and increasingly cosmopolitan tastes of young diners, she added. She mentioned her own daughter as a case in point.

“My daughter, being a second-generation Asian American, is so proud of her food traditions,” she said. Comerford’s husband, she explained, is of Irish and East European descent, so their daughter is familiar with both Asian and European cooking styles.

“She does not mind bringing pancit [Filipino noodles] or adobo for her school lunch bag one day and bringing beef stroganoff the next day,” Comerford said.

Youngsters — like fusion chefs — aren’t afraid to experiment, and they will shape tomorrow’s trends, Comerford suggested.

“The school kids share their lunches,” she said. “The younger generation, with no qualms or reservations, introduce their home cuisines to their friends and schoolmates.”

Close-up of Filipino chicken adobo served on rice (CapitalCRUZ)

Filipino chicken adobo, served with rice, is one example of how adobo can be prepared. In fusion cooking, dishes are often reinterpreted with new ingredients or seasonings.