Five Questions with Matthew Wendel

Matthew Wendel, Executive Office of the President (2001-07) and Department of State (2007-09), discusses his extraordinary career journey

Matthew Wendel was a state investigator who left that job to become a cater waiter…and with no formal culinary training, ended up cooking for President and Mrs. Bush at Camp David and Prairie Chapel Ranch.  He calls it, “winning the lottery of life experiences.” Along the way, he also served as deputy chief of protocol at the State Department and today is general manager of Blair House. We can add “author” to Wendel’s fascinating resume with the upcoming publication from the White House Historical Association of, “Recipes from the President’s Ranch:  Food People Like to Eat.”  Pre-orders for the book, which includes a foreword by Mrs. Bush, are available here. Additional content and updates are available at Wendel’s cooking Facebook page. 

In this month’s “Five Questions With…” Wendel takes us through his extraordinary journey, gives us his favorite leadership lessons from President and Mrs. Bush, and offers up simple recipes that will be a hit with your family and friends, just like they were with heads of state and world leaders at the ranch in Crawford.

Q: You have a fascinating personal story.  How did you end up cooking for President and Mrs. Bush at Camp David and at their ranch? 

I was working for the State of Texas as chief of enforcement for the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. We were charged with administering the state licensing exam and investigating cases of animal abuse and malpractice.  We also investigated cases involving drug diversion in conjunction with the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Drug Enforcement Agency. After many years at my job, I was restless and decided that I needed something new and different. So, I decided to keep a good day/bad day calendar. If after a year I had more bad days on the calendar than good, I would resign. All the while preparing myself financially just in case. A year passed and I resigned. I became a cater waiter around Austin, where I was living. I was sent to the Governor’s Mansion to work as a waiter for Governor Bush’s Inauguration. Fast forward many years and many events later at the Governor’s Mansion.  One night while I was cleaning up after an event, Governor Bush asked me if he were to run for President, would I consider coming with him to take care of he and Mrs. Bush. And the rest is history.

Q:  Mrs. Laura Bush’s mother once paid you the ultimate compliment, saying,  “Matthew, you just make food that people like to eat.” With no formal culinary training, was cooking always a passion of yours?

I grew up in Danbury, Texas –  population 1,300 and mostly of French, German or Czech descent, with five brothers, three sisters and hundreds of cousins. Most every activity was centered around food and family. Every school carnival or church gathering was like food competition. My mother was one of the great cooks in town and sold baked goods out of our home. She made sure that all her children knew how to cook. She put us to work in the kitchen at a very young age. She always told us that if you knew how to cook you would never go hungry and could always get a job if needed. So, I guess yes it was somewhat a passion. From a young age I saw the power of food and what sharing a meal does for people. Sharing a meal is a great equalizer.

Q:  What advice can you pass along to help your fellow Bush-Cheney alums improve their backyard cookouts and family meals this summer…and what selections from “Recipes from the President’s Ranch” would you like to highlight?

I would say that the main thing about cooking for family and friends is to keep it simple. Don’t make things so complicated that you get all stressed out. It has to be just as enjoyable for the cook as it is for the guests. And if things don’t go just as planned, no one will know, nor will they care. People are there for more than just the food. They are mainly there for the fellowship of family and friends.

For your summer cookouts, keep it simple but tasty. Everyone likes to start off with guacamole and chips and I think that my Simple Guacamole will hit the spot.  Then pair that with my Easy Summer Chicken Recipe and Pasta Salad with a Twist and you have yourself a meal. And for dessert, Blue Bell ice cream was a favorite of President Bush’s along with Matty’s Chocolate Chip Cookies. And you will be eating just what I served to many a world leader at the Crawford Ranch for lunch. 

Q:  In your day job, you are in your second tour of duty in the protocol office at the State Department. Tell us about your experiences hosting world leaders as general manager at the Blair House?

In my professional career I have always tended towards a job not for how much it paid, but for the experiences I would have in the job. I often said that working for President and Mrs. Bush was like winning the lottery of life experiences. It changed the whole trajectory of my life. But being the General Manager of the Blair House might be like winning that lottery for a second time. On behalf of the United States, I get to welcome and host world leaders and their delegations to a place that becomes, in essence, their home away from home. The most exclusive bed and breakfast in the world. On steroids. Every leader tells me what a great honor it is for them and their country to be invited to stay at Blair House.  It was my great honor to host the entire Bush family for the funeral of President George H.W. Bush. It seemed like old times, except all of the kids are grown with families of their own.

Q:  Can you leave us with a favorite story or leadership lesson from your time with President and Mrs. Bush that continues to serve you well in your work today? 

I was working for then Governor Bush and he asked my opinion on something and I responded to his question and then said, “sir, but I am just a waiter.” He responded, “We are all waiters of one kind or another, all serving someone.” That comment made a real impression on me. He had respect for you no matter what your job was, one of the many things that I admire about President and Mrs. Bush. They know that every person’s job fits like a puzzle piece. You can’t be successful without the contribution of everyone. I use this philosophy in my work and in my everyday life.