Walter Scheib, who brought American cuisine prepared in a lighter style to the White House as its executive chef during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, was found dead Sunday near a hiking trail outside Taos, New Mexico. He was 61.
The New Mexico Department of Public Safety, in a news release on its website Monday, said the State Police discovered Scheib’s body after a search that began last Tuesday when a family member reported him missing. No details on the cause of death were given.
Scheib, who had recently moved to the area, started hiking alone June 13 in the mountains above Taos Ski Valley. The police organized a search and found his car in a parking area at the Yerba Canyon Trailhead, north of Taos, three days later, according to the news release. The search area narrowed after cellphone records put Scheib’s most recent location at a nearby mountain. On Sunday evening, searchers found his body in a river near the trail, about 1.7 miles from the trailhead.
Scheib was a relative unknown — the executive chef at the Greenbrier resort and spa in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia — when Hillary Clinton picked him from a pool of applicants to replace Pierre Chambrin as White House chef in April 1994. Chambrin, a Frenchman, told the press that he had left his post under pressure from the Clintons, who denied the accusation.
Hillary Clinton told Scheib that she wanted to bring a healthier, lighter, American style of cooking to the White House, and he obliged, seeking out small producers to deliver high-quality ingredients to the table.
For his first state dinner, in honor of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, he served an appetizer of quail with corn custard and a tomato-cumin sauce with a Southwestern accent. The entree was grilled Arctic char and lobster sausage with wild mushroom risotto, braised fennel, vegetable ragout and a roasted garlic and lime sauce. Field greens, with goat cheese and basil baked in phyllo and a port wine dressing, followed. The wines were American, and so was the service: individually arranged plates rather than large banquet-style platters.
“If there is a way to get the fat out without making the taste or texture suffer, we do it,” Scheib said in an interview before serving a state banquet for Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, in September 1994.
The job was a heady experience for him, and he relished it. “I get to do every day what most chefs get to do once or twice in their life, if they’re lucky,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “People will have to pry me out of here with a crowbar.”
In fact, Scheib was fired in 2005, after finding himself out of sync with the Bush administration’s food philosophy and with Laura Bush’s social secretary, Lea Berman. He was replaced by Cristeta Comerford, an assistant chef he had hired.
“We’ve been trying to find a way to satisfy the first lady’s stylistic requirements, and it has been difficult,” Scheib told The Times after his dismissal. “Basically, I was not successful in my attempt.”
In a statement posted on the website of the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton said that “visitors from around the world loved his delicious and creative meals.”
He added, “Walter used his immense talents not only to represent the very best of American cuisine to visiting leaders, but to make a difference in people’s lives across the country through his support of various charities.”
Walter S. Scheib III was born on May 3, 1954, in Oakland, California, and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, where he attended Walter Johnson High School. His mother, a keen cook, watched Julia Child on television and reproduced dishes like paella valenciana and bouillabaisse for her family.
“My mother always had something going in the kitchen, and I was always nosing around, seeing what was going on,” Scheib told Nation’s Restaurant News. Before long, he was cooking for his parents and friends.
After briefly studying at the University of Maryland, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, graduating in 1979. He immediately found work at the Capital Hilton in Washington and rose to executive chef within three years. He left the Hilton in 1986 to become the executive chef at the Boca Raton Resort and Club in Florida, and four years later was hired as executive chef at the Greenbrier, where he directed a staff of 200.
Behind his back, his wife, Jean, submitted his résumé to the White House after Chambrin left. After preparing a tryout meal for Hillary Clinton and her staff, he won the job of executive chef. Because of his résumé, Scheib was pegged as an administrator rather than a creative chef, a description that stung. “I’m not going to respond to anyone who hasn’t spoken to me before or eaten my cooking,” he said in an interview before his first state dinner. “I think I’m pretty creative.”
At the same time, he admitted that the White House, where he oversaw five full-time and 20 part-time workers, should not be confused with a four-star restaurant. “These are not Escoffier dinners,” Scheib said in 1998 before a dinner in honor of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. “You can spin it any way you want, it’s still a banquet. How you serve 240 people and have them not think it’s another rubber-chicken-circuit dinner, that’s the job.”
Scheib enjoyed warm relations with the Clintons. He gave Chelsea Clinton cooking lessons before she left for college. He dedicated his cookbook memoir, “White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen,” which was written with Andrew Friedman and published in 2007, to Hillary Clinton.
The Bush years were trickier. “President Bush liked things simple,” Scheib told Highlights magazine in 2012. “No soup, salad, greens or ‘wet fish,’ such as poached. If it wasn’t baked or fried, he wasn’t interested.” Laura Bush, he recalled, told him, “Walter, we would like our food to be flavorful, generous and identifiable.”
Scheib, whose marriage ended in divorce, is survived by two sons, Walter and Jim; and his father, Walter Scheib Jr. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
After leaving the White House, Scheib started a catering and events business, The American Chef, that combined meals and demonstrations with his reminiscences of life in the White House kitchen.
“I’ve had 11 great years under two administrations,” he told Nation’s Restaurant News in 2005, “and I was lucky enough to be there while American cuisine was changing dramatically and got to do it on the biggest stage.”