From Maasim, Bulacan, to the White House
Anyone whose first name is Cristeta automatically gets my attention. My surrogate mother who took care of me as a child when my mom passed away and raised me in an atmosphere of warmth and affection was Cristeta Farolan Nivera, a sister of my father.
It was Cookie Domingo, an old friend of Cristeta P. Comerford in Washington, who passed on the story of Cris as an inspiration for Filipinos all over the world with her passion for excellence, hard work and professionalism. Last week at the Bahay ng Alumni of the University of the Philippines (UP), Comerford was conferred a Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa for her work as executive chef at the White House.
In her acceptance speech, she started by quoting one of her favorite Tagalog salawikain: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan (He who does not look back from where he came from will not be able to reach his destination).” Maasim, a village in San Rafael, Bulacan, is where it all started. Here she picked up the values of work ethics, perseverance and community, and her earliest memories of home cooking “ignited my passion and interest in my profession.” As a freshman at UP, she enjoyed the long walks from the arts and sciences building to the economics building to get to her classes. On one of those walks, she saw a foreign student struggling to move her wheelchair uphill but after a couple of times, the wheelchair would roll back again and again. She rushed to help her and volunteered to push her all the way to her building. What deeply impressed her was the student’s perseverance in doing this every day. Perhaps, some days with help; on other days without. She thought that the foreigner must really love the business of learning for her to do this day in and day out. Comerford told the students in the audience: “For you to succeed in anything, you must be passionately in love with whatever it is!”
In 1983, at the age of 21, Cris would move to the United States with her family. She took a wide range of courses related to culinary arts, underwent internships in wineries and restaurants under chefs with specialty cuisines. At the same time, she held culinary jobs at several restaurants in the Chicago area and later, in Washington. While working in a fine dining restaurant in Georgetown, she applied for a sous-chef position at the White House. In announcing her appointment as executive chef, winning over 450 candidates who sought the position, First Lady Laura Bush said “her passion for cooking can be tasted in every bit of her delicious creations.” As Cris put it, “I did not realize the impact and the multiple glass ceilings that were broken. First minority, first Asian, first female, first Filipino. The Washington Post headline read, ‘The White House Appoints the First Woman Executive Chef.’”
According to the UP citation, executive chef Cris Comerford’s chief responsibility is to take care of the first family. This means managing the kitchens of the White House, planning and preparing all menus and meals of the president of the United States and his family, including their private meals and official state functions. She has led the meticulous preparation and execution of state dinners for visiting heads of state. Some of those dinners were for President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of England. Chef Cris has been at her post for the last 14 years. She lives in Maryland with husband John and daughter Danielle.
Comerford ended her speech with another Tagalog proverb: “Ang palay ay parisan. Habang nagkakalaman ay lalong nagpupugay.” (Literally “Be like rice, the more the grains, the lower it bows”; show humility and gratitude even in the best of times.)
The story of Cristeta Comerford reminds me of another Fil-Am lady who made history at the White House. Eleanor (Connie) Mariano, the daughter of a Filipino who served in the US Navy as a steward at the White House mess, joined the US Navy, becoming a medical doctor. After being commissioned, she served in the field until an assignment took her to the White House. President Bill Clinton personally selected her to be the White House physician and director of the White House medical unit. In 2000, he promoted her to the rank of rear admiral, the first Filipino woman to be given star rank in the US Navy.
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