White House Chef John R. Hanny Shares Presidential Secrets at an SMU Lecture

Chef John R. Hanny (photo by Tiffany Thomas)

Last night, I tasted food fit for a President and heard stories you wouldn’t find in any publication except for John R. Hanny’s book, Secrets from the White House Kitchens.

Hanny, who served as a visiting chef for the White House during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy through Clinton, spoke at an event hosted by SMU about his time at the White House. He is the type of chef who regards cooking and eating as a communal experience. He believes that a conversation with good food builds lasting ties. His family is the oldest family in the hospitality industry with its roots in Buffalo, N.Y.

He began his career cooking and working in his father’s restaurant, coincidentally called the Little White House. By age 20, Hanny was a master chef and was commended by the French government as a “chevalier” for his work in the French wine industry.

Hanny spoke of the grandiose favor and fare of French dining and protocols, and how they were forsaken after Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. The French protocols, which Hanny considers to be the only true and proper way, were not adopted again until John F. Kennedy took office.

Hanny trained under world-renowned chef, Rene Verdon, who was hired by Jackie Kennedy. He had the opportunity to form a personal relationship with Jackie and the two of them met often. Whenever they found themselves in the same location, they’d eat at their favorite spot, the 21 Club in New York, for lunch. Hanny even received permission from Mrs. Kennedy, whom he never called Mrs. Onassis, to publish excerpts of the speech JFK never got to deliver in Dallas.

These once-in-a-lifetime experiences are what comprise Secrets from the White House Kitchens. After combing through thousands of recipes, Hanny finally settled on just more than 350 for the book.

A notable anecdote of Hanny’s involves none other than President Richard Milhous Nixon himself.

Regarded as a “temperamental” and “paranoid” man, Nixon was a picky eater to say the least. Hanny recalled that one night Nixon, who had quite the sweet tooth, was in a fit for dessert. Hanny said that he went into the kitchen and threw anything he could find into a bowl with the savoir faire only becoming of a White House chef and created a dessert for President Nixon that Nixon ate until he left office.

Guests got to nibble on that dessert last night. These apricot coconut balls (no-bake cookies) are made with only six ingredients, and anyone with a bowl and a spoon can enjoy this delicious treat.

Hanny made sure to express that the recipes found in his book are nothing the average cook can’t recreate. They’re also nothing short of delicious.

Hanny doesn’t cut corners with his food. He is not a fan of organic beef and doesn’t trust a skinny chef.

He often says, “This might be what’s in, but fat’s where it’s at.”

The author, award-winning restaurateur, and chef is as down to earth, witty, and genuine as they come and reminds us all, that President or not, these men lived life with ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks but had what he hopes everyone can experience, and that’s a really good meal.

Tiffany Thomas is a 22-year-old from Shreveport. She graduated from Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches, LA. She enjoys writing, cooking, shopping, and eating.