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Henry Haller, leader of the five presidents, dies at 97

Henry Haller’s entry into the White House came in late 1965, after the executive chef hired by the Kennedys resigned, finally finding him under his dignity to prepare foods like ribs, bread a la spoon and the chickpea puree requested by the next white. The occupants of the house, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.

Mr Haller, a practical and versatile Swiss chef, had impressed Johnson by cooking meals for him at the Ambassador Hotel during the president’s trips to Manhattan as a senator. He got the job and would go on to become the longest-serving executive chef in White House history.

From 1966 until his retirement in 1987, Mr. Haller looked after five presidents of politics, of varying temperaments and palates, concocted comfort food for their families, oversaw 250 state dinners, and endured several controversies over the storm in a fondue.

Mr Haller, who lived in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg, Md., Died on Nov. 7, his family said. He was 97 years old.

The White House kitchens were originally run by slaves, then an assortment of military stewards and mostly mundane professional chefs, each brought in by the sitting president. That all changed in 1961, when Jacqueline Kennedy reorganized the management of the Executive Mansion to reflect its status as an international showcase. She hired Frenchman René Verdon as White House chief, the one who lasted two years in Johnson’s presidency before resigning in frustration.

Exceptional culinary skills were then a prerequisite for employment. What sets Haller apart is his flexibility – culinary, personal and managerial – that allows him to thrive in the hottest kitchen of all. As he told historian Richard Norton Smith for an oral history project in 2010, “All they wanted is what they’re going to get.”

Mr Haller was typical of the Swiss, his wife Carol Itjen Haller said in a telephone interview. “With an Englishman, they act one way,” she says. “With a Frenchman, they will act in a different way. They are flexible people. “

Henry Haller was born on January 10, 1923 in Altdorf, Switzerland, near Lake Lucerne, to Emile Haller, a factory supervisor who was active in the local Red Cross, and Rosa (Furter) Haller, who cooked with vegetables harvested from the family vegetable garden.

Her father told her that a life in the kitchen would allow her to travel the world, Ms Haller said. After a stint in the Swiss army, he attended the prestigious culinary training school of the Hotel des Balances in Lucerne, which led him to a position as chef at the five-star Bellevue Palace hotel in Bern.

Like many other young Europeans immediately after World War II, Mr. Haller saw a better future in the New World. He earned a reputation as a superb sous-chef in Phoenix before moving to New York City, where he rose to prominent positions in hotel restaurants, hotbeds of culinary celebrities before the era. famous chefs.

He met his future wife in the early 1950s, when they were both working summer jobs at Martha’s Vineyard.

The Johnsons would test Mr Haller’s courage. They took pride in Texan cuisine and encouraged the use of canned and frozen foods to save money. (Mr. Verdon, his predecessor, didn’t want it, complaining to a journalist: “You don’t serve roasted ribs at a banquet with the ladies in white gloves.”)

Mr. Haller saw no reason why a leader could not lead an intermediate course between high and at home. He was not surprised by Ms Johnson’s warning, during her hour-long interview for the post at the end of 1965, that pleasing the President would not be easy,

Things started badly. Early in his tenure, Mr Haller presented Johnson with a plate of Florida white beans, but forgot to remove their stringy stems. He was summoned to the dining room, where the leader of the free world handed him a handful of stems. Mr. Haller pocketed them and stuffed them.

“If you want you will die,” said Sam Kass, who was a nutrition advisor to President Barack Obama and his family, describing the job requirements.

A figure with gray stems, almost rarely seen without his white cap, Mr. Haller quickly found his footing. Shortly after the bean incident, Mr Haller prepared an elegant lunch for a gathering of foreign dignitaries with a few hours’ notice and was rewarded with a note of appreciation from the president.

“When I hired you, I certainly didn’t intend you to be a short-lived cook,” Johnson joked.

Johnson ate heartily and encouraged Mr Haller for a chat with the press. But Mr Haller’s next boss, President Richard M. Nixon, was quietly obsessed with his waistline and demanded lighter fares, not to mention greater secrecy.

At the start of Nixon’s presidency, Mr Haller said publicly that the president not only liked martinis, but liked to mix them up himself – prompting a rare reprimand from the president’s political staff.

Mr. Haller was never close to the Nixons, but he did try to meet their needs. The first lady, Patricia Nixon, was a light eater who tended to eat even less when stressed, so Mr Haller worked with his two daughters to create a menu of items she would be more likely to eat, his wife remembers.

Mr Haller himself proudly recalled that at 7:30 a.m. on August 9, 1974 – hours before Nixon resigned – the president, barefoot in his pajamas, walked into the kitchen, grabbed Mr Haller’s hand. and said: Chef, I have eaten all over the world, but your food is the best.

Gerald R. Ford’s presidency has been relaxed and relatively uneventful for Mr. Haller. The Carters, who came next, were frugal, friendly and unfussy – but presented Mr Haller with arguably his most formidable challenge ever: a dinner for 1,300 on the White House lawn to celebrate the Camp David accords in 1978. It was necessary to organize within a week.

Mr. Haller’s work changed dramatically in 1981 with the arrival of Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. The new first lady saw White House event planning as essential to giving her husband’s presidency some sort of cinematic quality.

She took care of the smallest details personally and instituted a system of what Mr. Haller called “trial” menus for state dinners, reviewing the results with him. “We take pictures with a Polaroid so the staff know how they should be done,” he told an interviewer. “With the Reagans, you have to be more creative.”

In 1987, as the Reagans prepared to leave Washington, Mr. Haller decided it was time to move on. He had raised four children on a modest federal salary and wanted to earn more by giving speeches and working for food and beverage companies. Before leaving the White House, however, he published “The White House Family Cookbook” (1987), which was heavy with recipes and light with gossip.

With Mrs. Haller, he is survived by two sons, two daughters and five grandchildren.

In his later years, Mr. Haller – a fitness enthusiast who limited his children to one dessert a week – indulged in his passions for travel, skiing and photography. But he never moved away from the stove.

“There are two types of professional chefs,” recalls his wife. “There’s the kind that comes home and eats what his wife makes for dinner, and the kind like Henry, who was always in the kitchen saying, ‘You’re not doing well!'”

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