The kitchen at the Monte Vista Hotel is now under the stewardship of a former White House personal chef who cooked for President Ronald Reagan. But that fact alone doesn’t begin to indicate the philosophy behind Gene Hieber’s culinary art -and the journey that brought him to the Swannanoa Valley.
“For starters, I believe that food is a connection,” Hieber said recently. “Regardless of your belief system, regardless of where you come from or where you’re going, we all have to eat. If I provide a good, nutritious, elegant meal, in a congenial atmosphere, a sharing of beliefs and prospects can take place.”
Hieber's connection with food began when he was a boy working as “a prep guy” in Justin Wilson’s New Orlean's Cajun kitchen. Wilson, Hieber's grandfather, would later become a chef of Cajun cuisine on PBS television. When Wilson remarried, Hieber, then in his teens, reconnected with relatives in West Palm Beach, Florida. There he graduated high school and, in 1979, earned a degree from Broward Culinary School.
“At that point,” he said, “since I’d been cooking all my life and wanted to travel, I joined the army as a trained chef to cook in the officers’ mess. I got stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas just when Ronald Reagan was coming into office in 1981.”
As luck would have it, one day the commander of West Point, the U.S. military academy, was visiting the base and chose Hieber’s mess hall. The commander was so impressed with Hieber’s cooking that, two weeks later, he interceded and Hieber was ordered to report to the White House. In a sense, Hieber’s turn of fate was linked to the way he handcrafted prime rib to rare perfection - and the fact that Reagan and his wife Nancy were consummate meat-eaters.
“For Ronald Reagan,” Hieber said of one particular meal, “I added baked potato and asparagus. Nancy Reagan had a heritage pork chop, sweet potatoes and green beans. I remember it as if it were yesterday.”
As a result, Hieber became Reagan’s personal chef and traveled with him all over the world. In fact, Hieber was there when Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Hieber was especially taken when Reagan came down for his two a.m. snack and shared, Heiber said, his concerns about his children’s future, as well as “the homeless guy and the rich person and where the country was going. And how he could move people from all walks of life forward to make them happier.”
His stint as traveling personal chef for other presidents like Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush ended with his retirement from service in 2004 as a sergeant major. In 2008, he was invited to prepare the meal at a private function for President Obama in Asheville. At the time, he’d been cooking for and administering to the needs of the homeless across the country at the behest of Montreat’s own Rev. Billy Graham, pastor to U.S. presidents - yet another fortuitous connection fostered by the way Graham ministered to him.
In Asheville, Hiebert fell in love with the area and bought a house in Swannanoa. This past August, Hiebert dined at the Monte Vista and found the experience “less than stellar,” he said. He offered to fix it and, in effect, meet the standards of an upscale hotel.
“My goal,” he said, “is to lift up the quality, presentation, consistency - the whole lot, because this is home for me now," he said. "I have been to every state, city and country, and I won’t trade Black Mountain for anywhere. The mountains, the people, the scenery, even the water - there is so much to this Swannanoa valley that’s very appealing to a great cross-section of people. You’re allowed to be who you are, regardless of who you are. Most of all, there’s this spiritual calmness. For the very first time as a chef, there is no stress.”
It should come as no surprise then that, first thing after the holidays, he plans to serve “easygoing Southern comfort food, done right,” he said.
Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic feature about what draws people to the Swannanoa Valley.
Tasty, and charitable
While you're dining upon chef Gene Hieber's cuisine at the Monte Vista Hotel through December, contribute money to the Swannanoa Christian Ministry's fuel fund by voting for your favorite Christmas tree at "Deck the Trees" in the hotel restaurant and lobby.