China-U.S. Economies: The White House Chef Speaks

Posted by Reading Time: 5 minutes

Op-ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Sept. 5 – Ever since China became mainstream financial news, commentary about China and the United States, and in particular any feasible combination of the two has been the subject of intense debate, much of it off the wall and ill-informed. The legions of American commentators, for example, who sit in their offices back home, visit China once or twice a year and are then lauded as “experts” is remarkable. The same can be said in reverse. According to many, China is about to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy (true, but sometime closer to 2050) and will be the most powerful country in the world (highly debatable, and dependent upon how one measures the concept of power).

Even sage economists, like Michael Pettis for example (a rather unlikely combo of punk rocker American economic academic teaching in the highest academic institution, yet in a Communist regime), gets in on the act, where his normally doom and gloom observations attract thousands of readers eager to voice their own opinions, such as on this article “Some Predictions for the Rest of this Decade.”

Pettis tends to be polarizing, roughly half agree with him, and half don’t, meaning we’re no collectively wiser, although he generally makes his China points very well and is a valuable contributor (Oh, and a note on the above piece: if China’s economy tanks, its products will get cheaper. That’s got to be good news, somewhere).

Blogs, of course, also carry much commentary, although things tend to rather spiral out of kilter among the egos, hidden agendas and lack of moderation. I was tempted to head this article “China-U.S. Relations – American Chef Reactions” but decided to leave that to the domain of those peddling startling headlines who think the mass China web view is important.

The chef I am referring to is Walter Scheib, who was head chef at the White House from 1994-2005, serving two Clinton administrations, and the first Bush term. That run coincides with much of China’s rise, and as Scheib was responsible for both serving the First Family and presenting state and official dinners, he’s got a somewhat unique perspective on the politics of the day. What continues to make him relevant (at least partially) when it comes to views of senior U.S. administration officials, is that Hillary Clinton, now the U.S. Secretary of State, was of course the First Lady under her husband’s two administrations. I was lucky enough not just to meet Chef Scheib, but be cooked dinner by him at a unique event at the Capital Club in Beijing last Saturday.

Scheib, meanwhile, obtained his position from over 4,000 candidates, with Mrs. Clinton wanting to move the White House away from its previously heavy French influences to introduce the best and freshest of American cuisine. His meals were always prepared with that in mind, albeit with state dinners containing a discrete nod to the invited guests. American politics can be somewhat parochial, dependent often on the part of the country one originates from, and although I thought it churlish to ask Scheib his own political views, I can state that he was born in Virginia, and was originally hired by Hillary Clinton.

I had a good 30 minute personal chat with him after the Capital Club dinner, and asked him who always had the most impressive state dinners (being British, I expected him to say the Queen of England). It turned out it was the Chinese – who apparently would threaten not to come unless dinners were held at the White House, and with the best and most opulent service on offer. While other notable figures of the time would be happy to be invited to Camp David – or in Bush’s term, to his ranch in Texas – the Chinese would refuse. No pally “home calls” for them, it had to be the best – or nothing.

While that’s hardly groundbreaking news, the thought did strike me that when visiting as a guest of the president and people of the United States, insisting on everything being better than was served anyone else was imposing on the host a little. The White House’s state dinners are of course covered in the American media as to who had what; there is presumably someone in the Chinese Embassy in Washington who notes all this and makes sure the Chinese get served above the norm.

Although Walter was silent on this issue, the Chinese insistence upon apparently asking to be treated better than other White House guests grates with me a little. Guests imposing the standards of hospitality seems rather rude. I’m sure the Chinese were polite, if stern-faced, however it seems they are bent rather more on not losing face than enjoying a meal. Maybe a more relaxing environment would better suit the two most powerful nations today. But when apparently offered that, the proposal was declined. It is, it seems, the White House or nothing.  One can read into that what one may.

But what Scheib did say that was concise and well-said was his response when I asked him about the size of the Chinese and American economies.

“They are at different levels, folks forget that. If I walk down a side street in Beijing, it’s not too far before I see someone wheeling a handcart, or selling apples from a pile on the roadside. You never see that in the United States,” he said.

He’s right of course, and what really impacts is not the size of the respective economies, but the inherent wealth within them. China’s wealth is still nowhere near that of the United States, and it has five times as many people to cover its wealth base before even breaking even. We focus then, too much on economic size, and not enough on the actual value.

“China and the United States are caught in a dance, seeing who will run the global economy for the rest of this century. It seems clear that this hasn’t been decided yet,” Scheib also suggested.

I’d agree, but I’m inclined to side more with the Americans on this one. After all, from my perspective, 50 percent of our clients are from the United States, they pay their bills and I have little bad debt exposure from the U.S. market. If I changed that balance and went looking for more Chinese clients, I am sure my receivables would increase and I’d acquire more bad debt. It’s a bilateral trade dynamic worth over US$456 billion in 2010 that matters when spread around businesses involved in both corporate trade with China and the United States, yet all that gets attention is the S&P downgrade. Has that affected your business? It hasn’t affected mine. Yet changing my client base to “lessen exposure to American businesses” and “increase exposure to China” would, in my opinion, be a poor financial move and would increase, not reduce risk.

So there you have it, the basic thoughts of a White House Chef. Perhaps not so illuminating, although – permit me the pun – food for thought. And certainly a different perspective from all the general background noise that blogs and readers and journalists tend to push out each day.

Meanwhile, a plug for Walter Scheib’s book “White House Chef,” detailing life with the Clinton and the Bush families, together with many recipes is available from his web site. Plus a rarity on China Briefing, but as it was the White House Chef, I’ll share with you the menu he cooked. They were all dishes originally prepared and suggested with the help of First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, maybe you can work out who was involved with which:

  • Chilled Lobster Salad with Citrus & Fennel
  • Sesame Crusted Halibut with Red Curried Sweet Potato Soup
  • Tequila Glazed Smoked Angus Tenderloin with Warm Fruit Salsa and Chipotle-Corn Sauce
  • Manchego Tamale Tart with Avocado, Orange and Sweet Onion Salad
  • Peach & Blackberry Cobbler with Honey and Lavender Ice-Cream

Finally, I posed one last question to Scheib – I asked if he’d ever cooked anything for Monica Lewinsky.

“No,” he said, “but the president might have.”

Chris, the Baroness of Coigach, and Walter Scheib

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal of Dezan Shira & Associates and the publisher of China Briefing.