Henry Haller: The White House Chef Who Served 5 Presidents

Former president Lyndon B. Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, warned Henry Haller he was accepting a challenge when she hired him to serve as the White House chef. According to The New York Times, the previous chef, hired during the Kennedy administration, walked off the job, fed up with catering to the Johnsons' preference for simplicity. Confident in his ability, Haller took the warning in stride, but his tenure wasn't without a few bumps along the way, especially in the early days. 

One anecdote, reported by the Tampa Bay Times, involves Florida pole beans. Haller forgot to remove the fibrous strings from the beans. After dinner, Johnson called Haller to the dining room. "He handed them to me and said, 'I saved these for you.' That was it. He was like that. He would tell you right away if something was wrong. Then it was over, and everything was okay."

Johnson wasn't the only president to rebuke the much-loved chef during his long run in the White House. During the Nixon administration, White House staffers pulled him aside to suggest he be more circumspect with the press. The warning came on the heels of an off-the-cuff remark about Nixon's affinity for martinis — which he preferred to make himself. Still, both Johnson and Nixon held Haller in high regard. The day he resigned, a pajama-clad Nixon walked into the kitchen and told Haller, "Chef, I have eaten all over the world, but your food is the best," (via The New York Times).

Three weddings and a whole lot more

A native of Switzerland, Haller became a chef at his father's urging, but along the way, he found his calling (via The New York Times). Classically trained at Hotel des Balances in Lucerne — the hotel's restaurant remains a Michelin-star venue — Haller accepted a job at a five-star hotel in Bern. After World War II, he emigrated to the U.S. where he quickly earned a world-class reputation, eventually landing at New York City's Ambassador Hotel where he caught the eye of then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson.

Undoubtedly, never suspecting that a call from Lady Bird Johnson a few years later would bring him to the White House and mark the beginning of 20-plus years of serving presidents through five administrations. By the time he retired in 1987, Haller had presided over more than 250 state dinners (via The White House Historical Association). He oversaw two of the largest White House events ever — a dinner for returning Vietnam POWs and a celebration of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty — each attended by more than 1,300 guests. He also planned three White House wedding receptions (via Town & Country).

In 2007, Haller candidly shared fond memories, telling Smithsonian Folklife, "You know, I dream about cooking at the White House. Is it just going to stay with you? Cooking dinner for 1,300 people? Nowadays, I don't like to go too much to the White House because it brings back nice memories. I don't want to cry."