Andrea Cagle knew that starting a new career in the culinary arts at age 40 would entail new adventures and challenges, but she had no idea it would take her to the 57th Inauguration Day.
—The Chattanooga location of Virginia College is located at Eastgate Town Center.
—The on-site programs include business administration, cosmetology, criminal justice, culinary arts, health care reimbursement, medical assistant, medical billing and coding, medical office management, office administration, pastry arts, pharmacy technician and salon management.
The chef, who works as one of the instructors at the Chattanooga location of Virginia College, served as one of the executive chefs at the Washington D.C., fete earlier this year.
"This is what I tell my students—take any opportunity you have. Go for it," Cagle said. "You never know where life is going to bring you in this industry. I went to culinary school for personal growth. I never thought this would happen to me."
From the kitchen to the VIP room
The Huntsville, Ala., native landed the inside-the-Beltway gig through a former classmate at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. The classmate’s husband worked security for the inauguration.
Given that the event required more than 2,000 food and beverage professionals, the staff at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center elicited recommendations, and Cagle’s name was passed along.
It helped, of course, that she passed the background check and security clearance.
Cagle joined the culinary team at Virginia College in the fall of 2012 and teaches the beginning or fundamentals section of the nine-month program. Thanks to a family stake in the restaurant business—a barbecue joint called Joe's BBQ—she earned her kitchen stripes early.
While building a career as an office manager for several doctors' offices, she nurtured her love of cooking by catering for friends and eventually establishing a Chattanooga catering business called Ashley and Andy's Catering, now Cozy Cooking.
She came back to her food roots completely when her daughter graduated from college, fulfilling a long-held dream to attend culinary school. She graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in 2011 and quickly racked up an impressive resume, with opportunities to work on the "Top Chef" tour, with Cat Cora at the Georgia governor's mansion and even setting up Alton Brown's green room when he spoke at her alma mater.
The ultimate behind-the-scenes
Once Cagle passed the impressively thorough background check, she was officially cleared to cook for the president of the United States of America. She arrived in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 14 to meet with the other 19 chefs from around the country who had been tapped for the inaugural events.
There were a few things about the daily routine to which she had to adjust. Her commute from National Harbor, Md., included passing the White House. Her new office—the Walter E. Washington Convention Center—was a 2.3 million-square-foot facility, where the staff spent time preparing and storing what could be made the day before.
In addition to the other chefs, Cagle had a few new colleagues: white lab coat-dressed agents from the Food and Drug Administration, who served as modern-day versions of kings' tasters. One had even been to Chattanooga as a taster when President George W. Bush ate at Porky's BBQ on Market Street.
The inauguration was handled with such high security that the kitchen staff was only able to bring in personal knife kits and was not involved in placing the food order with the carefully chosen vendors.
The chefs also had no say in the menu. Cagle mentioned that the final version was a pared-down representation from the more elaborate and costly first or second draft, at the request of the president.
On the big day, the Chattanooga chef remembers working 17 hours straight. The convention center was divided into sections: roughly 11,000 people in the lower level with the cheap seats, a second level of 4,000 guests and another of 3,000 diners.
Cagle served as the executive chef of the ambassadors ball for the VIPs and celebrities.
"I was the executive chef over 15 cooks and 10 wait staff [members], and I had six ladies in the kitchen making sure things were replenished and everything was clean. It ran really efficiently," Cagle said. "I was able to make sure everything went out [of the kitchen] at the right time and temperature. The FDA guys were right there, too. It was quite the experience."
Adhering to Obama’s wish for a low-fuss affair, the kitchen prepared three pastas that were served at action stations and trays of crudités. The crew under Cagle also catered the private rooms for the president and vice president.
She personally spent six hours carving one and a half cases of fennel, crafting the bulbs into peace lilies to match the Hawaiian theme of the room. Cagle also noted how healthy of an eater Obama seemed to be.
When the ball was completely wrapped up after midnight, the chefs remained in the convention center until the early hours of the next day.
The Chattanooga-based chef has already been called for two high-profile political events but had to turn them down because of obligations during the school year. She is waiting for summer break to take advantage of more opportunities.
But don’t expect her to leave her teaching post anytime soon.
"I love to see the discovery because I was the same way when I went to culinary school. I didn't know the proper terminology for some of the things I learned and was already doing in the kitchen," Cagle said. "My students do that, too. I get to see them develop their passion for cooking."