WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2013, President Barack Obama reportedly turned down a lobster roll at a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill. The reason behind his refusal? Not a shellfish allergy — Obama declined the meal because his food taster was not present.
“He looked longingly at it,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins told The Daily Caller after the lunch. “He honestly did look longingly at it, but apparently he has to have essentially a taster.”
It may sound like a job associated with medieval kings who worried their mead was poisoned, but food tasters are common among modern day royals and politicians, too. In fact, every president since at least Ronald Reagan has had a food taster, New York Magazine reports.
“These folks have a number of different duties and responsibilities, one of which is to be sure that the president doesn’t get poisoned, quite honestly,” Walter Scheib, who served as the White House executive chef under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told the magazine.
Information on the president’s food tasters — who they are and what they do — remains a mystery to most for reasons of security.
The Secret Service “has always refused to confirm that U.S. presidents travel with a food taster,” The Daily Caller reports. But a few media reports provide some insight into the elusive position.
A 2001 New York Times article mentions food tasters in its reports on President George W. Bush’s inaugural lunch. The author calls the tasters “Navy mess specialists who travel around the world with the president.”
Tweets from Tolan Florence, the wife of famous Food Network chef Tyler Florence, revealed a taster was present at one of Obama’s 2012 fundraising dinners.
She tweeted, “Yes there is a taster. Lovely gentleman named Chef Andrew from The White House. We tasted one dish together,” The Huffington Post reports. Later that night she tweeted, “#1 Highlight of night obviously meeting @BarackObama #2: Tasting dishes with Chef Andrew from The White House = #nopoison.”
Former White House chef Scheib told New York Magazine the idea of the president having a food taster is not big deal.
“This is a practice and a procedure for the president which is, frankly, a little bit of a pain,” he said.
Presidential food tasters may forever remain unknown, but two food industry professionals discuss the ins-and-outs of the career and the qualifications one must possess to be a professional food taster.
Food Tasters: Working in the Industry
What does it take to be a food taster? For starters, an impeccable sense of taste — but less for detecting poison and more for detecting slight flavor or texture differences in food.
Ron Hayes, associate director of career services at the Culinary Institute of America, says most major food companies employ food tasters as part of their research and development and quality assurance processes.
“So for instance, a food taster for Heinz vinegar, for example, they might taste a number of different vinegars to make sure that they’re consistent, that the quality’s there,” Hayes says. “An ice cream manufacturer might have a food taster who’s tasting their ice cream in various stages for consistency.”
A little over a year ago, the Culinary Institute of America launched a culinary science degree that focuses on culinary production and the science behind it. Hayes says that specific sector of the industry is growing. He knows a number of Culinary Institute of America graduates who are employed in food research and development at Panera Bread and other national brands.
Ben & Jerry’s is another company that employs food tasters in-house. Only, the Vermont-based ice cream company refers to its tasters as “flavor gurus.” They are responsible for mixing different flavor combinations and traveling the world to sample unique ingredients.
But not every food taster position is that grand. Val