Henry Haller’s entry into the White House came in late 1965 after the Kennedys hired chef quit and finally found it beneath his dignity to prepare dishes such as the spare ribs, spoon bread, and mashed chickpea beans requested by the subsequent white housewife, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson.
Mr. Haller, a pragmatic and eclectic Swiss-born chef, had impressed Johnson while preparing meals for him as a senator at the Ambassador Hotel while the President was traveling to Manhattan. He got the job and became the longest-serving head chef in White House history.
From 1966 until his retirement in 1987, Mr. Haller looked after five presidents of different politics, temperaments and palates, whipped up home cooking, monitored 250 state dinners and experienced several controversies about the storm in the fondue pot.
Mr. Haller, who lived in the suburbs of Gaithersburg, Md., Washington, died on November 7, his family said. He was 97 years old.
The kitchens of the White House were originally run by slaves, then by a number of military administrators and mostly inconspicuous professional chefs, each brought into office by a president. That changed in 1961 when Jacqueline Kennedy reorganized the management of the Executive Mansion to reflect its status as an international venue. She hired French-born René Verdon to head the White House, who stayed in Johnson’s presidency for two years before resigning in frustration.
Up until then, excellent cooking skills were a prerequisite for the job. What set Mr. Haller apart was his flexibility – culinary, personal, and managerial – which enabled him to thrive in the hottest kitchen of all. As he told historian Richard Norton Smith for an oral history project in 2010, “Whatever you want, you will get.”
Mr. Haller was typical of the Swiss, said his wife Carol Itjen Haller in a telephone interview. “With an Englishman, you act in one direction,” she said. “You will behave differently with a French. They are an adaptable people. “
Henry Haller was born on January 10, 1923 in Altdorf near Lake Lucerne as the son of Emile Haller, a factory manager who works for the local Red Cross, and Rosa (Furter) Haller, who produces vegetables from the family’s vegetable patch.
His father told him that a life in the kitchen would allow him to travel the world, said Ms. Haller. After a stay in the Swiss Army, he attended the renowned culinary school in the Hotel des Balances in Lucerne, which led to a position as a chef in the five-star Hotel Bellevue Palace in Bern.
Like many other young Europeans right after World War II, Mr. Haller saw a brighter future in the New World. He made a name for himself as a great sous chef in Phoenix before moving to New York, where he rose to top positions in hotel restaurants that were a hotbed of culinary fame before the celebrity chef era.
He met his future wife in the early 1950s when both summer jobs were working on Martha’s Vineyard.
The Johnsons would put Mr. Haller’s skills to the test. They took pride in Texas cooking and encouraged the use of canned and frozen foods to save money. (Mr. Verdon, his predecessor, would have none of it and complain to a reporter: “You don’t serve grilled spare ribs at a banquet with the ladies in white gloves.”)
Mr. Haller saw no reason why a cook could not steer a middle course between haute and down-home. He was unimpressed by Mrs. Johnson’s warning during his hour-long interview in late 1965 that it would not be easy to please the President.
Things started out shakily. At the start of his tenure, Mr. Haller presented Johnson with a plate of Florida runner beans but forgot to remove their thread-like stems. He was called into the dining room where the leader of the free world handed him a handful of sticks. Mr. Haller put it in his pocket and ran away.
“When you wither, you die,” said Sam Kass, nutritionist to President Barack Obama and his family, describing the demands of the job.
Mr. Haller, a slim figure with gray stencils who was rarely seen without his hood, quickly found his stand. Shortly after the incident with the beans, Mr. Haller conjured up an elegant lunch for a gathering of foreign dignitaries within a few hours and was served with one Thank you letter from the President rewarded.
“When I hired you, I certainly had no intention of you being a short order cook,” joked Johnson.
Johnson ate heartily and encouraged Mr. Haller to address the press. But Mr. Haller’s next boss, President Richard M. Nixon, was quietly obsessed with his waist, demanding lighter fare, not to mention greater secrecy.
Early in the Nixon presidency, Mr. Haller publicly admitted that the president not only liked martinis but also liked to mix them himself – which led to a rare reprimand from the president’s political staff.
Mr. Haller was never close to the Nixons, but he tried to accommodate their needs. The first lady, Patricia Nixon, was a light eater who tended to consume even less under stress. So Mr. Haller worked with her two daughters to create a menu of items she would be more likely to eat, his wife recalled.
Mr. Haller himself proudly recalled that on August 9, 1974, at 7:30 a.m. – hours before Nixon’s resignation was due to take effect – the President went into the kitchen barefoot in pajamas, took Mr. Haller’s hand and said, “Chef, me have eaten all over the world but your food is the best. “
Gerald R. Ford’s presidency was relaxed and comparatively uneventful for Mr. Haller. The Carters who came next were thrifty, friendly, and straightforward – but presented Mr. Haller with what was arguably his greatest challenge: a dinner for 1,300 on the White House lawn to celebrate the 1978 Camp David Accords. It had to be organized in a week.
Mr. Haller’s job changed dramatically in 1981 with the arrival of Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy. The new First Lady saw a central role in the event planning of the White House in order to give the presidency of her husband a kind of cinematic quality.
She personally took care of the smallest details, implementing what Mr. Haller called “tryout” menus for state meals, and working with him to review the results. “We take photos with a Polaroid so the staff know how to take them,” he told an interviewer. “You have to be more creative with the Reagans.”
In 1987, as the Reagans were preparing to leave Washington, Haller decided it was time to move on too. 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 he left the White House, however, he published The White House Family Cookbook (1987), which was rich in recipes and little gossip.
Two sons, two daughters and five grandchildren survived him and Mrs. Haller.
In his later years, Mr. Haller – a fitness fanatic who limited his kids to one dessert a week – indulged in his passion for traveling, skiing, and photography. But he’s never far from the stove.
“There are two types of professional chefs,” his wife recalled. “There’s the kind that comes home and eats what his wife does for dinner and the kind of Henry who was always in the kitchen and said, ‘You’re not doing it right!'”