Even as she occupies one of the top culinary posts in the United States, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Pasia Comerford does not consider herself as being at the highest point of her life.
“I am still at a stepping stone to where life will lead me next,” she said in her speech after she was conferred a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, by the University of the Philippines on November 11 at Ang Bahay ng Alumni, UP Diliman.
Her appointment to the position on 05 August 2005, announced by then First Lady Laura Bush, broke “multiple glass ceilings: first minority, first Asian, first female, first Filipino”. Comerford revealed, however, that she did not immediately realize the impact of her ascendency to the post, a vacancy that took six months to fill, with 450 candidates vying for the position. She was promoted from her previous position as sous chef, which she had occupied since 1997.
Comerford marked her 14th year in the post, making her one of the longest serving White House executive chefs to date. She has acknowledged her leadership role, telling UP students, “Being a leader doesn’t mean you have made it or you are exempt from hard work. Rather, [you] should set the pace for others. As a leader, you are given much. That is when you give more back. As students, we learn much. In turn, we teach others.”
Looking at the successes of people around her, she said she sees both greatness and humility at the way they have used their gifts wisely. And so Comerford ended her address with the Filipino saying, “Ang palay ay parisan, habang nagkakalaman ay lalong nagpupugay” (translated in Damiana Eugenio’s Philippine Folk Literature: An Anthology as “Imitate the rice stalk; the more grains it bears, the lower it bows”).
Comerford was a BS Food Technology major in UP Diliman before migrating to the US with her family in 1983. In 2013, the centennial year of the UP Alumni Association (UPAA), she received the UPAA Presidential Award. In September of this year, she was named by UPAA in America as one of the University’s distinguished alumni.
Her appointment as White House executive chef made Comerford a member of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs, an exclusive organization of 26 chefs of heads of state around the world. It promotes culinary diplomacy, the safeguarding of culinary traditions, and healthy, well-balanced gastronomy.
Comerford has served as a consultant and a resource person to US government agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Her position, as well as her advocacy for healthy eating has led her to become the subject of press interviews, a guest in many talk shows, a keynote speaker at conferences, and a lecturer-presenter in workshops and panels across the US.
She received the Gawad ng Pangulo Pamana ng Pilipino Award in 2014, one of the three Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas. It is awarded to individuals who “in exemplifying the talent and industry of the Filipino, have brought the country honor and recognition through excellence and distinction in the pursuit of their work or profession.” Throughout her career, she has been honored by various organizations for her achievements as a chef and a Filipino-American.
UP’s conferment of the honorary degree upon Comerford was led by Commission on Higher Education and UP Board of Regents Chairman J. Prospero E. De Vera III, and UP President Danilo L. Concepcion.
Video by KIM Quilinguing, UP Media and Public Relations Office