Alumnus shares presidential recipes in new book about cooking for the Bushes
As a Texas State student, Matthew Wendel (B.S. ‘85) supported himself by working for the campus catering company. He remembers fondly the flexibility that the job offered him and the added benefit of free food. He had enjoyed the feeling of bringing people together over a meal since he was young, when his mother’s fried chicken was the envy of the neighborhood.
Even after Wendel graduated with a degree in Family and Consumer Science and launched a successful career in consumer affairs, he felt called back to cooking. Little did he know that this calling would lead him to Washington, D.C., and that one day he would be preparing his own fried chicken recipe for diplomats from around the world.
Wendel’s new book, Recipes from the President’s Ranch: Food People Like to Eat, is part cookbook and part autobiography. It tells the story of how a small-town cook with no formal training became the personal chef for President George W. Bush and his family at Camp David and Prairie Chapel Ranch, their Western White House in Crawford.
When Bush became governor of Texas in 1995, Wendel was a cater waiter in Austin. A job catering Bush’s gubernatorial inauguration blossomed into a six-year stint catering events at the Texas governor’s mansion. One night, Wendel remembers, he was cleaning up after a party when Bush told him he was considering running for president and asked him if he would be interested in coming along if they moved to Washington. Wendel says he was incredibly humbled and overwhelmed by the offer.
When Bush was elected, Wendel moved to Washington as an assistant and personal cook. As Wendel puts it, his job was “care and feeding of the first family.” Throughout the course of the Bush administration, Wendel says the first family became his family. He and Mrs. Bush often had conversations about publishing his recipes because they were approachable. The family enjoyed the comfort food he prepared for them in these more casual settings. One of the highest compliments he says he received is when Mrs. Bush’s mother told him “you just make food people like to eat.” Laura Bush wrote the foreword in Recipes from the President’s Ranch.
During his tenure as the Bush family personal cook, Wendel prepared meals for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and countless other world leaders. Wendel says cooking for these world leaders helped him to see that meals are “a great equalizer.” The people he was cooking for may have had opposing viewpoints, but they were all sharing the same meal. “If you can share a meal at the same table, then more negotiation can happen,” he observes.
For every official dinner, Mrs. Bush asked the guests at the table to sign a copy of that evening’s menu for Wendel to keep. These mementoes are featured in the book, alongside recipes for the dishes he served.
Ultimately, Wendel wants readers to see themselves in his story and be encouraged by it. “You don’t know where you’ll end up,” he says. “Today might seem difficult and hard, but tomorrow is a whole new day.”
Recipes from the President’s Ranch is available now available for purchase from the White House Historical Association.