Smoky Hill High School alum explores story of black chefs at White House in popular book


Adrian Miller’s calendar is a bit busier today than it was at the end of the Clinton administration.

As Miller, a former policy advisor and deputy director for Clinton’s One America Initiative, puts it, that was a period of his life when he had a lot of time on his hands.

“I rolled out of the Clinton White House, I was unemployed and was watching way too much television,” he says with a chuckle.

It was during that period of transition from politico to food writer that Miller, a graduate of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, began researching what would become his first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2013.

In the nearly two decades since those early stages of research, Miller has carved out a passion and, at least partially, a career as a so-called “soul food scholar,” marked by a prestigious James Beard Award and, as of President’s Day, a pair of published books on food.

Miller’s second book, also published by UNC Press, delves into the often invisible history of the African-American chefs who have staffed the White House since the Washington administration.

“African Americans have been in the presidential kitchen since day one,” Miller said.

About eight years in the making, Miller said research for the book, titled “Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas,” was a continuation of work he was doing for “Soul Food.”

“It’s really an outgrowth of the book on soul food that I wrote because when I was researching that book these White House chefs … kept popping up,” he said. “And as I was researching the soul food book, these African American chefs just jumped off the page at me, so I thought I needed to tell that story next.”

In between his full-time commitments as the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, Miller’s research for the new book involved looking through presidential cookbooks, presidential memoirs and, largely, thumbing through digitized newspaper archives. Miller said a smaller piece of his research process involved going to presidential libraries to see what kinds of materials were available for viewing, although the success of that practice was much more sporadic.

“It’s hit or miss because if the White House photographer chose not to take pictures of the food or the people in the kitchen, then you’re just out of luck,” he said.

During his nearly decade-long research process, Miller also went straight to the source. He said he tracked down nearly a dozen former White House chefs — four of whom were African-American and six of whom were white — and had on-the-record conversations with three of them. All of the chefs he spoke with, from the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, were white.

“None of the African-American chefs would speak with me and … the white chefs, not only would they talk to me, they were telling me stuff I shouldn’t have known,” Miller said. “The African-American chefs may have felt there were more repercussions for them professionally … but I don’t think the white chefs carry around that fear.”

Despite his time in and around the White House during the Clinton era, Miller, who’s also a lawyer, said he didn’t take the time to get to know any of the Executive Branch chefs working at that time, which is something he’s come to regret.

“I never even thought about it and I wish I did because I could have gotten so much scoop,” he said.

The reception to his second culinary book has been more pervasive and more positive, according to Miller, who said he credits his first book’s receipt of the prestigious James Beard Award for the cheery response this time around.

“Having won a James Beard Award for the first book, it definitely gives me more cred,” he said. “I think this book is going to be well-received and I think it’s going to have quite a bit of staying power for quite a bit of time.”

Recently returned from a short book tour along the East Coast, Miller said he’ll be promoting his new work at local and national events throughout 2017. He’ll be at the Smoky Hill Public Library in Centennial for a book reading and signing at 7 p.m. March 31.