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White House Chef Shares Presidential ‘Secrets’ at GOP Dinner Honoring Volunteers

For nearly three decades, Martin Mongiello had the privilege of making meals for important people from across the country and around the world: heads of state, celebrities and even royalty.

Mongiello, the guest speaker Friday at the McLean County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Reagan Dinner at the DoubleTree Hotel and Conference Center in Bloomington, has served five administrations as a White House Executive Chef.

“These past five presidents I have worked with for 25 years, but also I have cooked for a king and a queen and many princes … presidents from other countries,” said Mongiello, adding that figuring out each U.S. president’s favorite foods “is the name of the game.”

Joined by McLean County GOP chair Connie Beard, Mongiello recognized local volunteer efforts by presenting Distinguished Service Awards from the Presidential Service Center. The two winners among nine nominations were the David and Bob Kieser families, and Normal Police Department detective Nicole Bruno.

“It was really amazing when our tribunal reviewed all of the submittals. We had a tough time. Somebody came back and asked if we could give nine gold medals,” said Mongiello, who pointed out that nominations were open to the entire community.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or not. If you’re doing great things around here, we want to have you recognized.”

Bruno was honored for her work with Special Olympics, PATH and Policemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, while the Kiesers were selected for founding and serving the Midwest Food Bank.

Inside the White House

Mongiello’s presentation, “Inside the President’s Cabinet,” offered a peek inside the walls of the White House for glimpses of its residents.

“We’ll reach into the cabinet and instead of getting the flour jug down, we have a jug that says ‘secrets’ and we’ll reveal a couple secrets about the First Families,” he said.

Guests were offered some particular treats that were preferred by different presidents, including a couple Ronald Reagan’s favorites: macaroons and jelly beans.

“People are looking for (jelly beans) and they think it’s funny. He always had a jar on his desk,” he said. “We also have President Trump’s favorite: Keebler Vienna Fingers. People see that and they laugh because they know it’s a store-bought cookie, but it is one of Don’s favorite cookies.”

So, how does a White House chef decide on a menu for major events?

“We usually come up with ideas for menus and then show it to the social secretary to see what they think about it,” said Mongiello. “It depends on who’s coming to visit. We typically in the United States will honor with the menu half American food and half from the visiting country, and we’ll do the same thing with the wines.”

Still, a chef serving dignitaries from around the world must be prepared for special requests.

“You have to be able to control your minds and your hands; you’re cooking for Muslim special requests, you have kosher meals that need to be served that night. You may have any different number of a dozen different kinds of diets,” said Mongiello, a U.S. Navy veteran.

“It’s a bit challenging in that regard but there certainly isn’t any room for attitude.”

Mongiello said one of his most memorable events—“probably a 10 out of a 10”—was an Italian state dinner where celebrities including Jon Bon Jovi and Nicholas Cage were among the guests.

“My grandmother lost her mind on the phone when I called her and said I’m going to be cooking for Sophia Loren,” he said. “She said, ‘Why are you cooking for her? What are you doing with her?’ I said, ‘Well, Gram, one of the things we do is we have all the famous glitterati.’”

Three nominees were presented with Challenge Coins as special recognition: Eileen Sronce for her work with Home Sweet Home Ministries; David Osnowitz with Easterseals; and Dennis Steele with Western Avenue Community Center.

Other honored nominees were Linette Brown and Debbie Leighton for their work with the Advocate Health Hospice program; Dr. Dele and Mrs. Terry Ogunleye for the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington and other community service; and Liz Freeland for service as a court-appointed special advocate for children.

GLT's full interview.

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Joe Deacon is a correspondent for WGLT. He started working for WGLT in 2019.