Five Questions with Robert Favela

Interview With
Learn more about Robert Favela.
Robert Favela
Director, Facility Operations
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Robert Favela with his son Benjamin and wife Sandy at Game 1 of the 2024 World Series.

This month Robert Favela takes us through his unlikely journey from his upbringing in West Texas and his service in the U.S. Navy, through his more than eight years at the White House and his role today as Director of Facility Operations at the Bush Center. We learn how the Navy came to be known for having the best food in the military, how art is selected for the Bush Center, and what it takes to become a Master Naturalist, as Favela did last year.

Q:  Can you tell us a bit about your journey – from growing up in El Paso to the U.S. Navy to the White House and Bush Center?

My family is from a small border town in Texas.  My father was an immigrant from Mexico who migrated into the U.S. in the early ‘70s to look for a better life and found work as a mechanic and auto body repairman. He met my beautiful mother, who was born and raised in El Paso, and they started their family.  I have three brothers, two older and one younger, and growing up with two older brothers toughened me up and helped me learn to pick my battles.  We moved around a bit when we were young from Texas to Arizona and California and then back to Texas until we finally settled down when I was seven years old in Canutillo, Texas. My parents wanted us to be close to our grandparents, which I still consider us very lucky to have been raised in West Texas. We traveled back in fourth to Juarez for the holidays or long weekends and loved spending time with our family and learn all about the rich Mexican family traditions, and of course the secret recipes from my abuela, Carmen Rivas Favela.

I graduated from Canutillo High School in 1993 and attended the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) my freshman year.  I worked full time at a restaurant called Fajita Cocina, which is still there today, but is now a Taco Cabana. This is where I would learn to manage a food service operation and even learn a few of my cooking skills.  In the summer of 1994 my best friend from high school, Carlos Medina, who had joined the Army National Guard after graduation, called me for a ride to the Navy recruiting station, so I agreed and drove him over.  The Army National Guard was not a good fit for him, so he deiced to try the Navy. The recruiter asked me if I was interested in signing up with my buddy, but I declined, however I really liked the sales pitch, especially the Navy College Fund offer.  By this time, I had married my high school sweetheart Sandy, so on the way back home I told Carlos that I might reconsider the offer to join the Navy but would need to get Sandy’s approval.  Sandy loved the idea of us moving to our own place and starting our family, so we decided to join the Navy.  My friend and I both joined under the buddy system and after completing our initial training in Orlando, Carlos shipped out to Hawaii and I headed to a ship out of Norfolk, Virginia that just started a six-month deployment.  This was the start of my Naval career and traveling the world.

Starting my Navy career onboard a ship that was deployed, I got to learn a lot about how the Navy operates and how you have to depend on each other to make every mission successful.  This was very hard work and long hours, but this would help me grow as a leader and knowing that I was serving our country, made all the sacrifices worth it.  I had great mentors and leaders that helped me along the way and a great Commanding Officer who offered to send me to culinary school.  I shipped out early from my first command, and this was the start of my Navy Chef career.

I attended culinary school in San Antonio, which would be the only time I got stationed in Texas.  I graduated top of my class and got to select orders to go back to sea. I selected a brand-new ship out of San Diego. I met my second commanding officer and as we got our ship ready for her maiden voyage, a Western Pacific cruise, the captain asks if I would be interested in serving at the White House.  The White House Navy Mess recruiter was coming out to San Diego to find the Navy’s best chefs to interview for White House Presidential Food Service Duty. I was highly recommended for this duty, but still very young in my Naval career, so I didn’t think I was going to be selected for this prestigious duty.  I received my selection notification while we were about halfway through our six-month deployment. My commanding officer broke the news during a Navy dinner celebration we were hosting in Guam.  I was selected for White House Presidential duty and had to return to the United States the next day. This was the start of my White House Presidential Food Service tour.

I arrived at the White House on April 20, 2000, and stayed through January 20, 2009.  I really enjoyed the fast-paced environment of the White House and the amazing experience of serving our commander in chief and travelling the world. I never thought of making the Navy a career or even dreamed of serving at the White House, but God has a plan, and I was blessed to get to serve for President Bush and Mrs. Bush. I got the opportunity to meet them both on the first day after the inauguration when they went around thanking all their supporters. I had set up a holding room and beverage station for them at one of the sites they visited that day and President Bush came over to shake my hand and asked me who I was and where I was from.  I introduced myself as a Navy Petty Officer from El Paso, Texas and he immediately called Mrs. Bush over and let her know that I am fellow Texan from her side of town, El Paso. I quickly volunteered to support the traveling staff on all trips to Texas.  I traveled frequently to Prairie Chapel Ranch in the hot summers and provided support to the travelling staff and covered all events out there.

During President Bush’s second term a position opened up to be the valet for the President and since this was a senior position, I thought I had no chance of even being considered for this, but as mentioned earlier, God has a plan.  Somehow my name made it on the short list, and I was selected as the new valet. I had a young family and knew the schedule would be hectic, and President Bush asked me to make sure Sandy was okay with my selection to be his new valet. She was as excited as I was, but knew we would have to sacrifice some family time for this amazing opportunity. I know that at the end of President Bush’s second term I would need to go back to sea and finish my career.  I started taking online classes to finish my education so that I could apply for a commission as a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) before going back to sea. I got selected to the CWO program and was scheduled to leave for Supply Corps School on Jan 20, 2009. However, I was asked by President Bush if I would consider going to Texas with them briefly before heading out to Supply Corps School to help transition them back to Texas.  I stayed on for another six months and headed to Texas with the family.  After my brief Texas tour with now former President Bush, I headed out to my Navy training and back out to sea as a Chief Warrant Officer. I thought this was a great ending to my Presidential Service, heading back to sea and training our sailors.

Back at sea and getting my sea legs back, I really enjoyed sharing my stories with the young sailors, motivating them to perform at their highest levels to achieve success.  I was now called “Chow Boss” and our ship earned the title of Best Food Service Operation in the Fleet during my tenure. This was beyond my expectations.  As I was approaching my 20 years of service and on shore duty for the first time in my Naval career, I really enjoyed spending time with my wife and son, Benjamin.   In 2014 we decided to retire from the Navy and come back to Texas to raise our young son, just like my parents did when I was young.  We were very fortunate that the Bush Center was opened and that their operations team was growing. This turned out to be the perfect timing for us to re-join the Bush family.  I am now the Director of Facility Operations, and I am blessed and honored to be back serving alongside President and Mrs. Bush at the Bush Center.

Q:  How did the Navy come to be known for having the best food in the military?

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the presidential retreat, “Shangri-La,” today known as Camp David, and directed the Navy to provide messing services and that Navy stewards from his Yacht, the USS Potomac, operate the facility.  This established the precedent for Navy personnel to serve the President and his staff.

In 1951, Rear Admiral Robert Dennison, Naval Aide to President Harry S. Truman, recommended a commissioned officer mess be established at the White House. The Presidential Food Service was established on June 11, 1951, and half a century later I was serving at the White House Navy mess when it celebrated 50 years of Naval tradition in direct support to our nation’s Presidents.

The Navy takes great pride and honor in providing food service and direct support to our Commander in Chief.

Q:  Mrs. Bush was very involved in the original design of the Bush Center. In your role as Director, Facility Operations, you often work with Mrs. Bush on the art collection and other updates to the center.  As the Bush Center turns 11 this month, how would you describe her approach to ensuring the facility remains exceptional?   

As the Bush Center approaches 11 years, we have added President Bush’s art and a few other pieces from local artists.  Mrs. Bush has an amazing design vision. All the art is carefully selected and we take the time to find just the right spot for it.  The Bush Center reflects the vision that President and Mrs. Bush have as being a welcoming place for everyone to visit and I believe this is reflected in how our facility is maintained to ensure everyone who visits, leaves with that impression.

Q:  You also play a key role in maintaining the Laura W. Bush Native Texas Park, even recently earning Master Naturalist certification.  What did that entail and how does it relate to your work?

Inspired by President and Mrs. Bush and knowing how important the Native Texas Park is to the Bush Center, I wanted to learn as much as I could about native Texas prairies, grasses and trees, so I joined the North Texas Master Naturalist chapter last year.  It was a full year of training on weekends, evenings and touring other local sites to help me better understand what is native and what works well in this environment.  Along the way I made some great connections with other community organizations, and I have grown our volunteer force with other certified Master Naturalists that help us provide tours for the Laura W. Bush Native Texas Park. I hope to continue to learn more about all our native plants to better manage this beautiful park. Our Bluebonnets and spring flowers are starting to bloom now, so I invite you to come over soon and tour the Laura W. Bush Native Texas park with family and friends.

Q:  Can you leave us with a favorite story, moment, or leadership lesson from your service at the White House?

I always say that I had front row seat to a great leader and always admired the way President and Mrs. Bush treated everyone with respect, from world leaders to the support staff at the White House.  I am blessed to serve for such an amazing family and my former White House colleagues always comment on how much President and Mrs. Bush are missed at the White House.