Award was presented to Chef Comerford at March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction of Chicago, following in the footsteps of 2009 Honoree Chef Rick Bayless. Now in its second year, this honor was created out of a desire to recognize chefs with Chicago ties for their achievements in culinary arts. Chef Comerford is being honored for her commitment to culinary arts; dedication to the environment, the farming industry, healthy eating, and an eco-friendly lifestyle. Accomplishments include bringing nationwide attention to healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity.Chef Comerford began her culinary career in Chicago when, at the age of 23, she held her first professional culinary positions at two Chicago hotels. Upon moving to Washington, D.C. she became a key member of the White House culinary staff in 1995.
“She is so deserving, Chicago’s own, and will truly come home to a hero’s welcome,” said Celebrity Chef and 2009 Chef of the Year Rick Bayless, “My experience cooking in the White House kitchen was so amazing and unforgettable because of one person, Chef Cris.”
Here’s my interview with the 2010 Chef of the Year, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Pasia Comerford (S – Sarah, C – Chef Comerford):
S: Welcome to Chicago.
C: Salamat (thank you).
S: You are a Batangguena.
C: Yes, my father is from Batanggas and my mother’s from Bulacan.
S: Describe the feeling of being named as March of Dimes of Chicago 2010 Chef of the Year.
Chef Comerford’s White House Broccoli Soup
1 tablespoon butter
6 garlic cloves, sliced
4 shallots, sliced
1 leek, white part only, sliced
1 sprig thyme
1 small onion, sliced
2 heads broccoli, stems sliced, and green tips reserved for puree
8 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt to taste
1. In a medium-size saucepan, over medium heat, add the garlic, shallots, leeks, onion and thyme. Sweat in the butter until fragrant.
2. Add the broccoli stem slices and saute until softened.
3. Pour in the chicken stock and bay leaf and simmer for about 20 minutes.
4. In the meantime, blanch the broccoli tips in a pot of boiling water over medium heat until bright green. Remove the tips from the water and “shock” in a bowl of iced water.
5. Drain the green tips and puree in a blender. Set aside.
6. Puree the soup in a blender and strain through a fine chinoise [conical sieve] into a large serving bowl.
7. Add the green tip puree and season with salt and pepper, to taste.Serve piping hot.
Executive Chef Cris Comerford’s No Cream Creamed Spinach
2 pounds baby spinach, washed and cleaned
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Blanch half a pound of spinach in salted, boiling water. Immediately, “shock” the blanched spinach in a bowl of iced water. Drain and squeeze out the excess water. Puree in a blender. Set aside.
2. In a large skillet, sweat the shallots and garlic until translucent. Add the rest of the spinach leaves. Toss and sauté until wilted. Fold in the spinach puree. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 6.
C: It’s very humbling. Of course, it is a great honor. The first honoree was Rick Bayless, and everybody knows he is a good chef and to be in the same category with him is very humbling. There are a lot of good deserving chefs in Chicago. Chicago is full of good talented and wonderful chefs and to be picked from that bunch…this is truly a very humbling experience.
S: We are really so proud of your accomplishments. So many firsts in your culinary career. You are the first Filipino, the first Asian to be the White House Executive Chef, and probably the longest running Executive Chef in the White House. You are also the first Filipina to battle it out in the Iron Chef Kitchen stadium.
C: Yes, what a wonderful year this is for me and my family.
S: You believe in simple yet well-balanced foods and promote clean, healthy eating.
C: I really do.
S: So many people, still as of this date, wonder how you got here, how you began your culinary career. Please tell us.
C: I was still a Food Technology student at the University of the Philippines in Dilliman when my family decided to migrate to Chicago in 1983. I don’t really know how my parents picked Chicago, but I’m so glad that they did. I’ve always been a foodlover. I grew up in a large family so there was always food cooking in the kitchen. I smelled it everywhere around the house. Bulacan and Batanggas are very well known for their wonderful cuisine, so these great-tasting foods were very familiar to me. I finished high school at Manila Science High School, I was really then a big science geek. Guess, I kinda married the two, and that’s food science, or food technology.
S: What are your favorite foods then?
C: Oh I love everything, really, everything. I can only hope there’s someone always who will just wanna cook for me.
S: Was there one particular person that influenced you to go into the culinary world?
C: That will be my great mom. She passed away just last May. She was a great cook. If she would have not married early, she would probably be a Chef. She was a dressmaker, but she showed me the ropes, she made me watch her cooking everytime, and she would use fresh ingredients always. There was no such thing as refrigerating anything during those days; you buy foods fresh and cook them fresh.
S: What do you remember about your first hotel/restaurant job in Chicago?
C: When we moved to Chicago in 1983, my mom had a friend working in a hotel. They convinced me to try out a hotel job, just to check it out really. Somehow, it seemed like a magic door that opened up for me. Little by little, I began to embrace it, I was really liking it. And when I worked with one wonderful Chef, I was mesmerized with the culinary job. I knew then that this was my new career path.
S: All these young people wanting to be in your shoes one day look up to you and really want to know what it takes to be a successful Chef.
C: 2 things come to my mind: hardwork and temperament. Hardwork to me though is really secondary. Mostly it is temperament. When the kitchen fire flares up, figuratively that is, you have to, kinda like, put out the fire. When problems arise, you have to be at the top of your game. Simply put, it is knowing what to do even before it happens.
S: So what’s your style of cooking?
C: With a pretty good solid French classic cooking techniques, it is then easy to embrace other ethnic cooking, or regional, or American cooking. So I say I adapt easily, I think I’m versatile enough. The test of a good cook is knowing what to do or cook with whatever ingredients available or on hand.
S: Tell us about your kitchen garden at the White House.
C: It’s pretty awesome. We planted that garden last springtime of 2009. This year we make it 50% bigger. And it has yielded more than 1000 pounds of fresh vegetables. We have lots of squashes, kale, hearthy lettuce, kholrabi.
S: I saw a printed recipe of your No-cream Creamed Spinach, really no cream?
C: Yes, no cream, but still the dish really tastes good. It’s all about adding or substituting alternative healthier ingredients or even doing different cooking techniques. Like you can puree things and make the texture of the food feel like you add butter in the dish.
S: Your American husband, John, is also a Chef. Does he like Filipino foods?
C: He doesn’t only like Filipino foods, he cooks Filipino foods. That’s a real blessing. He cooks pancit (noodles), he cooks adobo. The other day I showed him how to make dinuguan (with pork blood). He was very open to it, he knew the ingredients involved. He loves it. Our daughter Danielle loves Filipino foods as well. She takes some to school every now and then.
S: Does your daughter show some interest in cooking too?
C: She does, we let her dabble in the kitchen. And to me, the only way for her to get interested in cooking is to get her involved.
S: It must be pretty tough working in the White House. It’s documented that the White House officials are so impressed with the way you handle these big state dinners. So tell me, which is more stressful, preparing foods in the White House or at the Iron Chef Kitchen Stadium?
C: That’s a very good question. Both are very stressful. In the kitchen stadium, just imagine all the smoke behind you, all those cameras roving around. But since my main job is that in the White House, there is a different stress in there. It is a good stress though. That job keeps me on my toes always. Makes me really think ahead of time, instead of “firefighting” the problem after it happens. There, you really have to know ahead of time what might come up, and you just have to be ready for anything and everything.
S: You recently received a Mama Sita award back home. What do you remember about your trip?
C: Our kababayans (Filipinos) are so very warm. I was a simple Manila girl, and to be given this recognition and affecting so many people’s lives, it is an honor and a big responsibility as well. But it is a God’s gift.
S: Pinch yourself again, I’m almost ready to declare you as our National Hero.
S: Another distinguished honor is you’re now a part of this fraternity, a society of Chefs performing duties to heads of states.
C: It is really a distinguished group. Now we are about 30 members around the world. To be in that exclusive group, and to represent the USA, it is really a big thing.
S: In closing, my final question is, for this Thanksgiving day, what would you be thanking for?
C: I am so thankful for having so many wonderful friends, and supportive family. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I thank my loving husband, he has always been behind me all the time, all my decisions. My mom — just for all the discipline, all the hard work that she instilled in me.
S: I got one more question. 10 years from now, where do you see yourself?
C: I don’t know, it’s a long way from now. I’m just enjoying all these blessings. To me, whatever I’m doing right now, it is a preparation for the next thing. Trust me, I’m really preparing for some more challenges in 10 years.