President George W Bush’s personal chef has been humiliated by a team of French practical jokers who tempted him with a job offer to desert his employer and go to work for President Jacques Chirac.
The stunt, which is threatening to spiral into a diplomatic incident, happened when Walter Scheib visited Paris in his capacity as president of the Chefs des Chefs d’Etat, a club for those who cook for the world’s heads of state.
On Wednesday evening, he was due to attend a party at the Elysee Palace given by the French leader’s wife, Bernadette Chirac. That afternoon, a French television company dispatched a look-alike of Bernadette, to his hotel, the Plaza Athenee. The look-alike was accompanied by a producer, doubling as her secretary, and hidden cameras.
When they arrived, the supposed secretary asked Scheib to go to the hotel lobby as Bernadette Chirac needed to see him urgently about a very delicate matter. Scheib arrived and greeted the look-alike warmly.
Chirac, she said, was sick of French food. He had once mentioned that he liked calves’ head and he had been eating snouts and lips at official dinners ever since. What he longed for was some good American cooking, hamburgers and barbecue. Would Scheib agree to leave Bush and come to work at the Elysee'
The jokers had been sent by We’ve Tried Everything, a daily early evening programme, which mixes interviews with pranks. Frederic Siaud, the editor-in-chief of the show, said Scheib seemed overwhelmed by the offer. “He fell completely into the trap. He said, ‘I can’t leave George Bush just like that, I must think, this is a great honour for me.’ But he did not refuse.”
The phoney Bernadette pressed him, saying her husband wanted a reply at the party in the evening, in three hours’ time. Scheib said he needed half-an-hour to think, if she could wait.
“After 20 minutes, we thought he had almost decided to come over and work for the Chiracs,” said Siaud, “but one of the hotel staff recognised the producer and the joke was over”. Scheib, he added, “took it very badly. He was extremely angry and told us this was going to create a diplomatic incident”.
Franco-American relations have plunged to their lowest point in decades over the war in Iraq but earlier in the week, Scheib had been hailed for his tact by French gastronomes after he said he felt like a “young priest before the Pope” when he met the top French chefs.
Half-an-hour after the prank was exposed, the Plaza Athenee told Siaud that the chef had been on the telephone to the White House.
In turn, Washington called the Elysee, which then asked France 2, the television station involved, not to broadcast the stunt. It has yet to make up its mind.
The unfortunate Scheib has flown back to the US.