By Jean Li Spencer
Cristeta “Chris” Comerford makes the kind of food that gets into your head. She was twenty-three years old when she moved to the United States from the Philippines to work as a chef at two hotels (Sheraton Hotel and Hyatt Regency) in Chicago and then in the nation’s capital. Born and raised in Manila, Comerford, 58, is now a naturalized citizen of the U.S. and holds a coveted position at the most famous house in America: on August 14, 2005, Comerford became the first woman and person of Asian descent, a Filipino-America, to be appointed executive chef at the White House since Jacqueline Kennedy created the position in 1961. The defining characteristic of her cuisine is her commitment to flavor– a pledge that often requires Comerford to shed her much-needed glasses in the frenzied bustle of the kitchen. “Her passion for cooking can be tasted in every bite of her delicious creations,” former First Lady Laura Bush told the New York Times that same year.
Brought into the White House as an assistant chef in 1995 by Walter Scheib III, Comerford has served under the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, making her one of the most famous Filipino chefs in the world and an enduring figure in a political environment where dynasties shift seismically every one or two terms. Laura Bush appointed Comerford to this position after her exquisite handling of a banquet held in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh– the selection process reportedly lasted six months with 450 aspiring candidates– and Michelle Obama retained Comerford out of respect for their shared belief in the importance of motherhood and healthy eating.
Comerford was born Cristeta Gomez Pasia in the Philippines to Honesto Pasia and Erlina Gomez. She attended the University of the Philippines and majored in food technology. Although she left before attaining her diploma, Comerford was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, and as chef to a head of state, Comerford is a member of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs which has a slim and exclusive membership of 26 worldwide. She has been contacted as a consultant and resource person to select US government agencies like the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of State. She also makes appearances at conferences and events around the country, such as mentoring beginner culinarians at the Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu.
As a guest speaker at a recent University of the Philippines Alumni Association in America (UPAAA) grand homecoming event in San Francisco, Comerford said: “If you’re passionate about something, you will fight tooth-and-nail to get there.” She also shared an anecdote from that event detailing a long-ago luncheon with Paul Bocuse in his French restaurant, during which Bocuse looked at Comerford in such a piercing, indicative way that she intuitively understood he could not fathom a woman becoming an executive chef in their part of the world.
While most of what Comerford prepares in a typical day is kept hushed within the White House grounds, she has contributed to The New Filipino Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Around the Globe edited by Jacqueline Chio-Lauri and published several recipes online featuring traditional Asian American and Pacific Islander cuisine, which you can check out here. Comerford cites her mother, “Nanay,” as the best cook she has ever known, and for this particular mother and daughter duo, their “language of love” was indeed cooking. Passing down her enthusiasm for food to her daughter, Danielle, now marks a bond between three generations.
At the end of the day, Comerford told CNN that her role as a leader is to make sure that she has overseen an orderly, orchestrated symphony to create a “well-balanced, well-cooked meal.” Comerford also shared with Vogue in 2016 that her experience as the first woman and first minority chef has been both “humbling” and “amazing.” She said, with her special brand of transfixing authority, “When I walk through the gates of the White House and into the kitchen each day, my goal is to mentor my staff and help the people around me grow.”