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updated: 11/2/2010 1:38 PM

White House chef back home for award

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  • Cristeta "Chris" Comerford studied culinary arts and food technology in the Philippines and landed her first restaurant job at the Sheraton Hotel in Rosemont.

    Cristeta "Chris" Comerford studied culinary arts and food technology in the Philippines and landed her first restaurant job at the Sheraton Hotel in Rosemont.
    Courtesy of The White House

By Deborah Pankey

The chefs who cook under the pressure of TV cameras and critical chefs on shows like "Top Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" have nothing on Cristeta Comerford.

As executive chef at the White House Comerford routinely cooks for President Barak Obama and visiting dignitaries and heads of state from all over the world. Talk about pressure!

Yet Comerford, 48, handles it with style and grace that has won her accolades from points across the globe.

The Philipino-born chef who immigrated to Chicago at 23, returns to the Windy City today to accept the March of Dimes Chicago Chef of the Year award at the organization's annual Signature Chefs fund-raiser.

The group recognizes chefs with Chicago connections for their culinary achievements (last year Rick Bayless got the nod) and cited Comerford for her "dedication to the environment, the farming industry, healthy eating and an eco-friendly life-style."

Comerford had been working at the White House kitchen for 10 years before former first lady Laura Bush named her executive chef in 2005. She is the first woman and the first minority to hold that title. She lives in Columbia, Md. with her husband, John, and 9-year-old daughter, Danielle.

Please recall an early food memory that shaped the chef you've become. Summer breaks at my grandparents' home. They had a farm and if we wanted chicken or fish for dinner, they were right in the backyard. Fresh milk was still warm from the buffaloes. Coffee beans were sun-dried on the bamboo mats, black peppercorn grounded on stone mortars, rice planting was a choreography … so many food memories, that to this day, there would be certain triggers that will remind me of the smell and taste and textures of food. Familiarity with the freshest and seasonal products helped me to discern taste and quality of food.

Who inspired you to be a chef? My mother was such a good cook and I would help her in the kitchen a lot. She never measured anything, but instead showed me what to look for at different stages of cooking.

Any professional mentors along the way? Chef Dean Jaramillo from Chicago was the very first chef I worked with. The very first time I saw him, in all of the GLORIOUS chef's white, from the toque to the shoes, I was enthralled and awed. Chef Pascal Fontaine from Washington, D.C. instilled in me classical techniques that proved to be timeless and a very important foundation.

What was your first restaurant job? I worked grade manger (at the Sheraton Hotel in Rosemont) and learned how important it is to organize, work clean and work ahead.

Describe a typical day at work: There is nothing typical about my day. You have to expect the unexpected, be ready for just about anything. Cook the best dish you have ever cooked. Surpass what you did the day before.

What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? There are too many to mention, because I like everything. But because my Filipino heritage, pork, garlic and fish sauce are always in my grocery list. That makes for a mean adobo, the Filipino national dish.

What was the last meal you cooked at home? Did I give you the ingredients earlier? Yes! Adobo with a side of bok choy and jasmine rice.

What advice do you have for parents trying to get healthy meals on the table? Walk the talk. Be the example. Put vegetables on your own plate. Have a colorful plate. Children are very visual. The more different color vegetables you use, you are certainly incorporating a whole gamut of vitamins and minerals as well!

And, include your children with meal planning and preparation.

What is your involvement in the first lady's Chefs Move to School program? Chef Bill Yosses, chef Sam Kass and myself have adopted Tubman Elementary School in Washington, D.C. We volunteer at least twice a month to assist in educating the children, their parents and school workers about healthy eating and healthy food choices. Hopefully, between all of our expertise and experiences, we could make a difference.

How can chefs help shape our future generations? The children are our future leaders. The future of our nation will be in their hands. We want to be an active participant to ensure that healthy living and healthy choices are very important to this generation and the next generation to come.

What do you like to do in your spare time? Spare time is so precious that I want to make sure that my family and church community gets a big healthy piece of that pie!

When you're back in Chicago, where do you like to eat? My sister Opel makes the best food next to my mom! I also tend to gravitate to a whole lot of good places here in Chicago. And believe me, there are quite a good number of them.

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