Chef Instructor Eric Jenkins’ Journey From Farm House to White House

A short stint in the Army turned into 24 years with stops all over the world—including at the White House. Chef Eric cooked for four U.S. presidents!

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June 26, 2023 11 min read

The Chef Instructors at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts come from all walks of life–from career educators to chefs who worked in Michelin-starred restaurants to published authors. But not many can count the White House as a former workplace!

Army veteran and Chef Instructor Eric Jenkins has just that credential…plus 24 years in the military, and much more. Explore this chef’s fascinating story, about how he made his way from his grandmother’s farm to one of the most famous buildings in the world…and then to Escoffier!

“Wait Until Mom Wakes Up, or Learn to Cook”*

With a mom who worked nights as a nurse, the rule in young Chef Eric’s house was: “Wait until mom wakes up…or learn to cook.” So around age 7, Eric began to learn the ropes. Alongside his mother, father, and older brother, he started with pancakes and worked his way up from there.

Summers on his grandparents’ small farm in North Carolina were formative times. Chef Eric was exposed to the work that goes into food production, and he got to sample corn, green beans and blackberries at their freshest. He also learned that chicken doesn’t just come from the store—it comes from the farm first.

Watching his grandmother cook, Chef Eric began to learn the basics. Even today, he still refers back to the lessons he learned in her kitchen. One lesson that made a mark had more to do with who cooks than how to cook.

“My grandfather had the policy of, ‘Boys need to play outside,’” Chef Eric explains. “I came in one day to get something to drink because I was thirsty, and I saw my grandmother just cooking away. I was fascinated, but I guess I sat there a little too long. My grandfather was like, ‘Boy, get out of here. That’s women’s work.’ My grandfather was a great man, but my grandmother was probably the one person that could shut him down. So she looked at him and said, ‘Leave the boy alone. If he wants to learn how to cook, let him learn!’ So we went from there.”*

Chef Eric Jenkins“I’ve cooked for years, but I still go back to a lot of my grandmother’s teaching.”*
Chef Eric Jenkins, Escoffier Chef Instructor and Former White House Kitchen Chef

Equality between the genders in the kitchen would come up more than once in Chef Eric’s culinary career, as we’ll see!

“A Few Years” of Military Service

As he grew, Chef Eric continued cooking at home, especially when his mom was working. And he put in his “mandatory fast food time,” as he calls it. After high school, Chef Eric’s initial plan was to go to college, paid for in part by some track scholarships. But after visiting a couple of college campuses (and spending the whole visit partying) he knew he needed more discipline than college could offer.

So instead of taking the college route, he followed in his two brothers’ footsteps and joined the Army. His mother was not thrilled—she had her heart set on college for him. But he promised her that he would attend after his service—which he only anticipated lasting a few years.

Once enlisted, he had to pick his job. “I said, ‘I’m really interested in computers and cooking.’ They told me, ‘Well, computers are new, so the school is backed up. It will be a six-month wait for computers. Or we can get you started cooking in a couple of weeks.’ So I joined as a Food Service Specialist (cook).”

A successful, decades-long career began…because computers were too popular!

Chef Eric decorating a large cake for the 229th Army Birthday celebration

Chef Eric decorating a 16’ x 16’ cake for the 229th Army Birthday celebration in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

As an Army cook, there were ample opportunities to learn. Chef Eric would stage, working extra unpaid shifts at every duty station he could on his travels through Korea, Germany, Africa, and China to learn interesting techniques. In Hawaii, he got a job part-time at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, working on weekends and during evening parties.

His time in the Army also came with plenty of accolades. He was named the Food Service Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year in 1993, and won several awards for the best dining facility for Thanksgiving out of 20 different facilities.

Chef Eric receiving a trophy

Chef Eric receiving a trophy from his Major General for Best Dining Facility for Thanksgiving in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

He also excelled in competitions. At the U.S. Army Nutritional Hot Food Challenge competition in 2007, he sealed the championship alongside another soldier. And at the Fort Lee Army Culinary Competition, his team came in second place for Installation of the Year, also in 2007.

Chef Eric receiving his award at the Fort Lee Army Culinary Competition

Chef Eric receiving his award at the Fort Lee Army Culinary Competition, with his proud mother in attendance.

In the end, that service period of “just a few years” ended up lasting 24 years!

Getting to the White House

Chef Eric’s time in the Army led to a very unexpected opportunity. At the White House, Navy cooks traditionally staff the kitchen. But when the opportunity was extended to some Army cooks as well, Chef Eric’s NCO (non-commissioned officer, a supervisor role) was selected. And the NCO picked Chef Eric to help.

Chef Eric Jenkins“I didn’t think I was a great candidate, but [my NCO] thought I was. And that changed my career and changed my life.”*
Chef Eric Jenkins, Escoffier Chef Instructor and Former White House Kitchen Chef

Chef Eric worked as a White House Kitchen Chef on and off through the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Under the supervision of White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib, he cooked for state dinners, inaugurations, and parties of all kinds. Chef Eric also worked with Cristeta Comerford, Scheib’s successor and former sous chef. She’s held the White House Executive Chef role since 2005.

While you may think a kitchen chef wouldn’t see much of the first family, that’s not the case! Presidents and their families were often coming in and out of the kitchen. Chef Eric remembers the first time former President Ronald Reagan came into the kitchen: “You see six or seven secret service guys walk in, and they tell you to back away from the table. They made us put all the knives in the drawers. And then the President walks in.”*

He remembers President Clinton, as well as his daughter Chelsea, being friendly and personable. Chef Scheib even taught first daughter Chelsea Clinton how to cook! According to Chef Eric, President Clinton also had the most parties and the most interesting guests—with entertainers, TV and movie stars, and radio hosts. As a musician himself, Aretha Franklin was always first on the President’s guest list.

Chef Eric’s favorite White House resident was First Lady Barbara Bush. “Phenomenal, wonderful woman,” he says. “She was what I call a First Lady. She is probably the most underrated, only because they were only there for four years, but she was such a wonderful person.”*

Panna cotta with fruit and a strawberry sauce, lemon meringue tart with raspberry sauce, and a chocolate lava cake with chocolate sauce by Chef Eric

Panna cotta with fruit and a strawberry sauce, lemon meringue tart with raspberry sauce, and a chocolate lava cake with chocolate sauce by Chef Eric

Fulfilling a Promise to Mom

When he finally did leave the Army in 2008, Chef Eric didn’t neglect his promise to his mother.

He enrolled in Central Texas College, where he earned an Associate of Occupational Studies Degree in Culinary Arts Management. He thought that would be it for his education. But then the Post-9/11 GI Bill® was announced. Chef Eric had cashed out most of his GI Bill, but he left a few dollars in the account. That meant he was still eligible for the Montgomery GI Bill. With this additional funding, Chef Eric went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for an Associate in Applied Sciences in Restaurant and Culinary Management and a Bachelor of Professional Studies in Culinary Arts Management.

Chef Eric Jenkins“There are always new things happening in the industry. I always want to brush up on my skills.”*
Chef Eric Jenkins, Escoffier Chef Instructor and Former White House Kitchen Chef

During his time in school, Chef Eric had cause to remember his grandmother and her views on gender equality in cooking. A very well-known chef came to speak to the students during Chef Eric’s time at CIA. When asked about female chefs, the panelist said that he didn’t look at them as chefs or equals. There were two female chefs up there on the panel, and half the audience was women!

Chef Eric wasn’t having it. He grabbed a microphone and asked the celebrity, “Who was the first chef you ever remember?” The chef began listing famous names. But Chef Eric said, “No, your first chef was your mother. And the fact that you’re going to tell a roomful of female students that you don’t think they deserve to be in the kitchen…I don’t know how they even allowed you on the panel!”*

Chef Eric with students from The Sichuan Culinary Institute

Chef Eric with students from The Sichuan Culinary Institute from his CIA study abroad program in China.

A few months after graduation, Chef Eric was able to combine his love of cooks and veterans into one role, as the Veterans Admissions Counselor at CIA. During his time there, he was recognized with the Black Veteran Poets (BVP) Honorary Leadership Award (2015) and Jacob Rosenthal Leadership Award (2013) from CIA.

Finding Stress Relief at Escoffier

After leaving CIA in 2016 and spending some time working in healthcare kitchens, Chef Eric was ready for a change. He was working with a friend at a food truck when he got a message from a former Escoffier Chef Instructor that he knew from his time at CIA. The friend said, “This job is perfect for you!”*

So Chef Eric applied, and here he is, teaching online courses in Culinary Arts at Escoffier! Chef Eric has taught Culinary Foundations, The Farm to Table® Kitchen, and perhaps his favorite, Menu Design and Management.

Chef Eric and students on a Farm to Table weekend trip

Chef Eric and students on a Farm to Table® weekend trip to The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio.

Chef Eric Jenkins“My mother always said I should teach people how to cook.”*
Chef Eric Jenkins, Escoffier Chef Instructor and Former White House Kitchen Chef

While he’s often had side jobs, right now his focus is all on Escoffier. “I’m loving Escoffier, honestly,” he says. “Those side jobs were stress makers. Escoffier is my stress reliever.”* But he does take on other projects, like designing the Escoffier’s LGBTQIA+ Pride Newsletter.

What makes teaching at Escoffier special? “The support,” Chef Eric says. “In every job I’ve had there’s a level of support, but it’s thin. The corporate chef doesn’t want to teach you too much, because they don’t want you to take their job. Same in the military. Everybody’s protecting their job. There’s a brotherhood, but nobody’s trying to teach you too much. But at Escoffier, there’s always information available. I’ve just never had that kind of support.”*

Chef Eric and Farmer Lee Jones

Chef Eric and Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden during a Farm to Table® trip.

Be Prepared for Any Opportunity!

Chef Eric’s story involves a bit of luck and a lot of hard work. When he enlisted in the military, he could never have dreamed that it would be his ticket to working at the White House. But the years of learning, practice, and enthusiasm prepared him for the role. And after his Army service, he backed up that hard work with a formal education that prepared him for teaching at Escoffier.

Chef Eric’s path is far from over, but we’re honored to have him sharing his decades of experience with online students at Escoffier. If you’re hoping to get into one of his classes, the first step is to apply! Contact our Admissions Department to get answers to your questions and start your application for our online Culinary Arts programs!

To learn more about Escoffier’s skilled Chef Instructors, try these articles and podcast episodes:

*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.

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