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Life After the White House

September 3, 2012 by Chef Pierre Gateau

For a couple of years now I have been receiving requests from the editor of this website to produce more columns about my life since leaving my job as executive chef of the White House in 2004. It has certainly been a long, strange journey since then, and not much of it has been something I would be proud to relate to an audience of readers. I was reluctant to write at first, but after a long period of soul searching, I realized that while some may laugh at my personal failures, others may gain inspiration from my story.

Much has changed in my life since my last column, and I would say that it has changed for the better. I like to think I'm more down to earth and easygoing these days, and my English has gotten a lot better. The money and prestige of my former life as a famous chef is now gone, but in the bargain I have learned many life lessons and gained much-needed peace of mind. I am now living in Houston, Texas where I teach culinary classes at a local career college. I have a beautiful fiancé named Suzanne, and we are engaged to be married next year. I am also working on a new cookbook, entitled Pierre's American Cooking with Style, but I haven't found a publisher for it as of yet.

As you may remember from my first column, written five years ago, my employment as head chef at the White House was terminated under controversial circumstances involving the edibility of my food. In that column I confessed that, as an act of retaliation against the Bush Administration for insulting my French heritage, I committed acts of culinary sabotage against the friends and family of the President. Yes, in the name of revenge I purposefully prepared meals so horrid that I was forcibly removed from the White House by the Secret Service.

After that chaotic scene, as I was flown back across the Atlantic to my native France, beaming with pride, I imagined that I would be welcomed as a hero there for defending the honor of my home country. I assumed that the story of my Washington exploits had received full coverage in the media. Little did I know that the Bush administration had concocted a little counter-sabotage of their own. They didn't reveal that my special recipes had been bad on purpose, only that they had been bad. When President Bush was questioned by the press about my dismissal, he only said with a smile and a chuckle, "You know, I try to be open-minded about different types of cuisine, but Pierre's food damned near killed us."

Since I wasn't following the news much as I got re-settled in my Paris apartment, I remained somewhat unaware of my status in the media for the first couple of weeks after my arrival. I didn't realize how much fun the press was having at my expense after catching wind of the fact that I had been forcibly expelled by the Secret Service because of my sub-standard food. I was becoming legendary across the country, not as a defender of the French people, but as an incompetent chef. Sadly, even as I savored my imagined victory over my unjust ex-employers, I hadn't considered the detrimental effects of my actions on my own culinary career.

After my plane touched down at Roissy Airport, I was greeted with a few flashes from cameras as I entered the lobby. I smiled proudly and waved to the scattered reporters. Other people were whispering to each other and pointing me out to their companions. A couple of the reporters approached me and asked very general questions -- what were my plans for the future, would I continue to cook and that kind of thing.

The interview was cut short by my sister, Estelle, who was there to give me a ride home. She walked up with an unhappy facial expression and said, "Come on, let's go." We retrieved my suitcases and the carrier which contained my cat Phillipe. During the ride home she tried to explain how I was being portrayed by the media, but I didn't want to believe her. "It's just a misunderstanding." I told her, "I'll set the record straight in my next interview."

As it would turn out, there would be no further interviews with the press. They seemed to have lost interest in me pretty quickly. However, it appeared I was still a minor celebrity on the streets of Paris. People would stop me, sometimes wanting to shake my hand. Some of them attempted to console me, saying, "Don't worry, things will get better." Others just laughed and made rude comments. One woman shook her head as I walked by and said to her friend, "What a disgrace." The reality of the situation, that the people of France believed I was a terrible chef, began to sink in. Still, I was optimistic. I would return to my old restaurant, La Porte du Paradis. I would explain the situation to Desmond, the general manager, and everything would be fine. We had been close friends before I moved to Washington, surely he would welcome me back.

After several attempts, I finally got in touch with him, and he seemed to imply that he would give me my job back, but then said he couldn't talk about it then, he had to go, he would call me back as soon as possible. Days turned into a week, and still no phone call from Desmond. Finally I walked to the restaurant, which is less than a mile from my apartment. As he saw me approaching, his easygoing expression changed to a look of annoyance. I attempted friendly conversation about our last tennis match, but he responded only with an impatient "yes, yes" then got right to his point. "Pierre, I've been trying to get in touch with you, I think there's something wrong with your phone line. Unfortunately, the owners have informed me that, in light of the controversy that surrounds you, your employment here has been suspended indefinitely. Don't take this personally, but even your presence as a visitor here is bad for our reputation. Please leave at once."

Don't take this personally? What nerve! As hard as it was hearing that from my so-called friend, I decided I wouldn't be discouraged by his betrayal. I had a considerable amount of money in my savings account at the time. That would sustain me while I looked for suitable employment, I reasoned. I had many more friends and acquaintances among the culinary elite, and I was sure they would not pass up the rare opportunity to employ me as an executive chef, or at very least, would offer me a sous-chef position.

My job search didn't go as well as planned. Upon my entrance into the front lobby of the prestigious Restaurant Du Palais-Royal, I was immediately escorted out before I could utter a word. After I hurled several angry insults at the maître d', he must have contacted some of the city's other fine dining establishments to warn them of my job search. Both L'Ambassade D'Auvergne and Le Cinq had a policeman waiting at the front door to bar my entrance.

At Le Meurice, the amused manager called over his wait staff to have a look at me. "Chef Pierre wants a job here!" he announced, sending his waiters into a fit of laughter. Then, after regaining his composure, he patted me on the back and said, "Pierre, my friend, there's no position for you here, but I hear that Burger Town might have use for your talents."

At Chez Dumont and Le Temps au Temps I was offered a job as a dishwasher, and I'm still not entirely sure if those were serious offers. I had held dishwashing jobs in my youth, but my pride would have prevented me from considering such employment in the present day.

After the first 15 or so rejections my spirits began to sink. In desperation, I expanded the scope of my job search to include less prestigious restaurants, but received only one offer for a position on the salad prep staff. I couldn't bear the thought of such a demotion, even though the salary would have been adequate to pay my bills. Like the exclusive restaurants that refused to hire me, I felt the need to protect my reputation, or what was left of it.

Becoming deeply depressed, I finally abandoned my job search, telling myself I still had plenty of money and wouldn't have to work for a while, anyway. For the next several months, I spent my days watching television game shows, talking to my cat Phillipe, and consuming the contents of my wine collection. Occasionally I would wander the streets of Paris, going into various shops and buying little toys and trinkets I didn't need, because having them gave me a sense that things weren't so bad. I told myself it was okay to indulge a little bit because one day soon I would get the phone call that would put my career back on track.

During this time I also came up with several bizarre new recipes, which I thought were brilliant at the time, but now seem like the culinary equivalent of abstract expressionism. I will write about those in my next column, and continue the story of what transpired in the years after I left my job at the White House.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...