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Moving to the head of the kitchen

Bushes select 1st female chef

CRAWFORD, Texas -- Laura Bush, on a quest for the last six months to give White House menus a lighter, more American flair, has hired Philippine-born Cristeta Comerford as the mansion's new head chef, the first woman to hold the job.

After trying out a number of restaurant chefs and other candidates to replace former chef Walter Scheib, the White House settled on an insider in Comerford. She was promoted from assistant White House chef, a job she has held since 1995.

Ethnic and American cuisines are Comerford's specialties, but she also knows the French classical cooking that her predecessor did well.

''In both their official dinners and personal menus, the president and the first lady are interested in healthy food with lots of fresh ingredients but that is also infused with a lot of flavor," said Susan Whitson, spokeswoman for Bush.

Longtime chef Scheib was hired from the exclusive Greenbrier resort in West Virginia by Hillary Clinton, wife of former President Clinton.

He left so that Bush could set her own style, an administration official with close ties to the East Wing said. The official, who requested anonymity, also hinted at a personality clash.

Comerford devised the menu for last month's official dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India.

The 134 guests dined on chilled asparagus soup and lemon creme; pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants, and herbed summer vegetables; and salads of Bibb lettuce and citrus vinaigrette.

Desserts are the province of White House pastry chef Thaddeus Dubois.

In another example of Comerford's cooking, Whitson said she prepared a Valentine's Day dinner featuring tenderloin of buffalo with Hudson River foie gras.

During tryouts in which applicants prepared test meals at special functions and private dinners, Bush hoped to find someone whose tastes were more in sync with hers and her husband's.

President Bush is known to enjoy cheeseburgers, but the Bushes, who are both health conscious, are also fond of upscale Tex-Mex cooking with light, spicy accents.

During their first four years, the Bushes have hosted just four state dinners. The president's parents, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, hosted four in their first six months in the White House.

Laura Bush has said she intends to do more entertaining than in her husband's first term.

Comerford, who is a naturalized American citizen, got her bachelor's degree in food technology from the University of the Philippines. She has worked at Le Ciel in Vienna and was chef at restaurants in two top Washington hotels.

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