How a White House Chef Tricked Bill Clinton

Getty ImagesFormer President Bill Clinton follows a vegan diet and is a devout jogger, but the road to his healthy lifestyle was paved with culinary trickery, reveals a former chef at Camp David.

Clinton was known for his love of McDonald's (a habit that was spoofed in a Saturday Night Live skit in 2007) and foods such as hot dogs, Mexican, and desserts.

So in 1993, when Marti Mongiello landed a gig as a White House chef at Camp David he wasn't surprised that he was expected to whip up the first family's favorite foods. Steaks, hamburgers, fried chicken, and the Arkansas classic "bologna tralala"— which consisted of huge slabs of the processed meat with holes in the center, filled with egg and fried on both sides with mustard—were common menu items. “And of course, we had to make tons of sweet tea with white sugar cane every day,” Mongiello told Yahoo! Shine.

However, shortly after the Clintons attended a 1993 presentation given by Dean Ornish, a physician and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., the couple was inspired to live a healthier lifestyle. “After that, Dean Ornish was invited to Camp David to educate the kitchen on how to prepare meals for the Clinton’s,” said Mongiello. “This was a challenge since most of the staff had been trained to prepare classic meals using butter, lard, and grease. One chef just quit because he couldn’t get with the new program.” But Mongiello took the mandate seriously. As he recently told the Washington Post, ”I wasn’t going to do anything to contribute to the death of a president.”

Mongiello’s goal: Make healthy versions of Clinton’s favorite foods that tasted just like the originals. “I experimented like a mad scientist,” he said. “It was tough because Bill Clinton was largely on a no-fat diet and only allowed low-fat food every now and then.”

He was even tasked with making vegetarian chili without the liberty of oil or shortening. “I figured out how to make my own ‘oil’ by using onions,” he says, adding that he sautéed 50 pounds of onions (using a lid to contain the onion’s natural vapors), lightly frying them until they melted down into a natural grease.

Fatty, red meat in lasagna was swapped out for soy-based Boca Ground Crumbles and red bean soy paste was substituted for beef stock. “One time, Hillary Clinton visited me in the kitchen to ask how everything was going with the new diet plan,” said Mongiello. “I told her it was challenging but absolutely genius.”

One night, Bill and Hillary Clinton were eagerly awaiting a healthier version of fettuccine Alfredo, which is typically made with heavy cream, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. “The Clintons were served their meal and suddenly another chef burst into the kitchen with a nervous look on his face,” said Mongiello. “He told me, ‘The Clintons want to see you right now. Did you use real cream sauce? You might get fired.’” Using cream was a double offense—it violated the new dietary mandate, plus Bill Clinton was lactose-intolerant, unable to digest dairy.

However, Mongiello was confident. He strode into the dining hall and faced Hillary Clinton. “She said, ‘What’s going on with this meal? We discussed Alfredo and it’s off the menu.’”

Mongiello revealed his secret. The “cream sauce” was made from overcooked rice. “I had accidentally overcooked a large batch of rice and was going to toss it, but wondered, ‘What else can I do with this?’” he said. “So I ground it into a paste and added rice milk and dairy-free margarine. I also used soy grated cheese.”

Hillary Clinton’s reaction, according to Mongiello: “Remarkable! Unbelievable! Who knew we can still have cream?”

Chocolate tofu cheesecake (see recipe below) was another favorite treat. “The Clintons and their guests loved this; however, it was considered a cheat meal since dairy was used,” said Mongiello, who added light cream cheese, and part-skim ricotta cheese to the tofu-based dessert.

The diet clearly paid off, motivating Clinton to continue his healthy lifestyle, even after leaving the Oval Office. He had a health scare in 2004, undergoing a quadruple coronary bypass surgery at age 58 after developing heart disease.

However, by 2010, Clinton had adopted a mostly vegan diet of beans, vegetables, and fruit (allowing for some fish), and in the days leading up to his daughter Chelsea’s 2010 wedding to financier Marc Mezvinsky, he got serious about losing weight. He told ABC News, "She doesn't think I'm in shape to handle it. You know, she told me the other day, she said, 'Dad, the only thing you gotta do is walk me down the aisle, and you gotta look good.'" Chelsea suggested he lose 15 pounds—her father one-upped her by dropping 24.

Mongiello's culinary skills are now put to use at a bed-and-breakfast called the Inn of the Patriots where he flexes his culinary muscles for hungry customers. Want to re-create one of his Clinton classics? Check out the recipe below for chocolate tofu cheesecake (originally from In the Kitchen with Rosie by Rosie Daly)

Cake Ingredients:
8 oz. firm tofu
1/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
4 oz. light cream cheese
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 large egg whites
3 tablespoons light Irish cream liquor (optional)
1 tablespoon coffee liquor (optional)

Topping Ingredients:
 1/2 cup nonfat sour cream or yogurt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon honey
 
Directions:
    1.    Set the oven to 350 degrees.
    2.    Combine all of the ingredients and blend them in a food processor until the mixture is smooth.
    3.    Grease a 10-inch pie pan with vegetable oil.
    4.    Pour the mixture into the pan
    5.    Bake on the middle rack for one hour. Tip: If you fill a baking pan halfway with boiling water on the lower rack it will prevent the surface of the cake from cracking.
    6.    Spread the topping.
    7.    To set the topping, bake for an additional 10 minutes.
    8.    Allow cake to cool (refrigerate for at least an hour) before serving.