I am often asked what it is like to leave a job at the White House and become a “former”; those of us who worked at the White House for a time and then came back into the real world. There are of course many “formers” of various levels of importance, but I think there is a shared experience that may be different than what people might expect.
There is an adjustment period. When I returned to the world of flour and sugar, there was a period of depression, frankly. The body’s reaction to those diminished levels of endorphins and adrenaline that you feel every day going into the White House gates leaves you feeling a little blue. Waiting for the phone to ring – and the phone did not ring, at least not incessantly – and from the calls I did receive, it was very hard to choose the next step. Let me share with you a little of the unpredictable journey
When I left the White House pastry kitchen in 2014, I was happy with the job we did there and my very capable assistant Susie Morrison took the top spot, so I knew the place was in good hands for the future. Susie is an unsung American hero as she helped build the pastry cuisine at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue first under Roland Mesnier and then Thaddeus DuBois and then myself. She had weathered many storms and was certainly more than ready to take on the top post, which she has steered with panache, and grace like everything she does.
In 2015, I went to UCLA to work with the wonderful Dr’s Wendy Slusser and Amy Rowat as they rolled out their Global Food Initiative with Janet Napolitano, the Chancellor of UCLA at the helm. It was a thrilling program that was inspired by Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. It encompassed; health and medical services in underserved communities, food justice, outreach to church groups, and efforts to curtail food waste. It continues to this day and fosters a coordinated effort to facilitate better choices throughout our food system.
There was a nagging problem though during this period, and it was because I missed cooking and baking every day. The thing I had done all my adult life had become so much who I was that I could not be happy without it. So, I came back to New York and started a pie business; Perfect Pie.
It was very satisfying to be back in a professional kitchen, and I felt whole again! It was not long before the pie business caught on and I was approached by a group of London theatrical producers. They asked me if I would bake pies for a show they were putting on. So I said, “Sure, which show?” “Sweeney Todd,” came back the answer. “Uh, wait a minute, you want to serve pies to an audience about to see a musical about cannibalism?” “Yes, that is correct,” they said. “You see we performed this in a century-old pie shop in London and it was a big hit.”
Well I am a sucker for an English accent, and everyone involved not only had that going for them, but they were so damn nice and cute, I could not refuse. And that is how I began making Chicken Pot Pies for the production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It has been the perfect antidote for my dyspepsia. The set designer re-built, Harrington’s, the London pie shop into a replica within the Barrow Street Theater, and the theatrical people involved are talented, humorous, and loving and welcoming to us culinary types.
Sharing a space with actors and singers has been fascinating, and we scrutinize each other with curiosity, amusement, and sometimes alarm, but the arched eyebrows and side eye we give and receive are a big part of the charm. There is something wonderful about seeing food become an integral part of a musical; the pies are not incidental, this is not supper-theater, they are really a character in the show (or at least they were before Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett got em).
When it closed, this production became the longest running Sweeney Todd in history, even longer than the first version on Broadway. In all modesty, I do think the pies had something to do with it.