What was your childhood like in Manila ?
I was number 10 in a family of 11 kids. The constant smell of food is a very vivid memory for me. My parents came from a town on the outskirts of Manila. My grandparents had a rice paddy, a fishpond, and livestock. Everything was right in their back-yard. If you wanted chicken for dinner, you had to catch one and give it to Grandma so she could pluck it.
Did you always want to be a chef ?
When our family immigrated to Chicago in ’83, I wanted to find a job in food science, but it was difficult. Mom had a friend who worked at a hotel. I started there as a salad girl.
And that was that ?
Yes. When I walked in and saw my first chef wearing the white shoes and scarf, the tall hat, and the starched uniform, I thought, Where have you been all my life?
What’s your family’s experience of food like today?
My husband is also a chef, so our 14-year-old daughter has always eaten adult food. We took her to a tasting when she was four or five on her best double umbrella stroller, and she actually kept up with us.
How did you wind up at the White House?
There was a state dinner for Nelson Mandela during the Clinton administration. I was working at a D.C. restaurant called the Colonnade. They asked chefs in the neighborhood to help. Then, in 1998, the White House’s chef brought me in as sous chef. In 2005 the Bushes installed me as their executive chef.
What was that moment like—finding out you got the job?
I saw the news streaming on CNN: “White House installs first female executive chef.” It was scary, in a good way. The movie Finding Nemo always comes to mind—when all the fish escape the tank and jump into the water and look at each other and say, “Now what?”
Tell us about one of the toughest meals you’ve ever pulled off.
Last year, at the Africa Leaders Summit, we had to cook for 50 heads of state. We had to accommodate all the dietary restrictions, practices, and preferences. It was a huge logistical challenge.
How do you lead your team in a situation like that?
I’m more of a coaching leader. You want to rally the people around you. You’re there to look at everyone’s talents and make sure you get the best of each team member. We have a lot of different ethnic backgrounds in the kitchen. The sous chefs have all these wonderful recipes in their heads. I always welcome everybody’s ideas.
What’s your best time-management secret?
I have an hour commute to work. It gives me time to plan, so I’m set to take care of the most important things first. As soon as I walk in the kitchen, I know what I’m going to do.
How much sleep do you get?
We make sure our daughter is in bed by 9:30 at the latest. Within 10 minutes, my husband and I are conked out as well. I get up around 4:30.
What’s your morning routine?
I do a little organizing so that when I leave, the bed is made and the house is clean. I also take a little quiet time in the morning. I have a Bible phone app that has a suggested daily reading that I like to use.
Do you have time for exercise?
We have a 50-pound poodle at home that needs a whole lot of walking in the morning. I try to do that at least four times a week.
You take care of two families—the Obamas and your own. How do you do it?
My husband stepped back from his executive-chef job to be a work-at-home dad. He’s a great support system. He makes sure our daughter is driven to practices and doctors’ appointments, and he does the cooking Monday to Friday. I take over on the weekends. He’s such a great partner. I couldn’t ask for more.
What’s your advice to those aspiring to succeed in your field?
The key is balancing your career life, your home life, and your spiritual life. That helps me be a better chef. I try to get home in time for dinner at least three times a week. I’m very protective of Saturday because it’s family time. We don’t schedule anything. My daughter and I try out different recipes. She loves to bake. And now the question on everyone’s mind:
What do the Obamas like to eat?
The First Family loves fresh food and any-thing seasonal. In 2010 the First Lady installed a four-season garden. We use a lot of vegetables from there. It’s a beautiful resource. You just walk in the backyard and pick whatever you want. It’s almost like coming back home to my grandma’s place. Everything is right there.
Myth: If I let go of this relationship, job, or situation, I may never get a better opportunity.
Magic: When I say goodbye to a situation that isn’t right for me, I create the space for a new gift to enter my life.
Have you ever been afraid to make a change in your life, even when you are unhappy or frustrated, thinking, “If I give up what little I have, I may never find anything better” ? Have you ignored what your feelings are trying to tell you, turning to logic instead to find the direction you’re looking for? While our feelings can certainly carry us of course at times, they are also a pathway to the truth—your inner truth—if you listen to them.
Logic alone won’t get you there
It’s essential to evaluate your feelings as you would any other piece of information you gather so that you can make an emotionally intelligent choice in every situation. Logic alone won’t get you there. In the words of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade; it makes the hand bleed that uses it.” Lani discovered how life-changing it could be to follow through on what her feelings were telling her when she was unexpectedly faced with an issue that challenged both her career and her character.
She thought she had finally found the perfect job. It was in the right location and on the right career track, and she was working directly with the owner of the company as his assistant. Then one day she discovered that her boss was dealing unethically with his clients. She knew this was wrong and hoped that something or someone would come along to correct the situation so she wouldn’t have to rock the boat. But nothing changed, and Lani knew that she could not let the situation go unchallenged.
An opening for life to work its magic
When she finally mustered the courage to speak to her boss, he brushed aside her concerns. So she told him that if he didn’t stop his behaviour, she would quit in one week. Seven days later, Lani found herself walking out the door with nothing but a small box of her belongings in her arms. As she paused in the downstairs lobby of the office building to catch her breath, wondering what she would do now with no job, no severance package, and no leads, an older, well-dressed gentleman stopped next to her.
He was having some trouble opening his new briefcase. Lani instinctively offered to help and figured out the problem right away. “You’re clever,” the man said, thanking her. “If I’m so clever,” she shot back without thinking, “then maybe you should hire me!” As it turned out, the man was looking for a good office manager.
Lani was a great fit for the job. “He was so respectful, and that new job paid much more than the old one,” she later told me. “I really didn’t have to be worried at all about taking a stand for what I believed in or about leaving that job.” In fact, the universe was just waiting for her to make room in her life to receive the gift of this new job. Sometimes walking away is the right way to be walking. It creates an opening for life to work its magic.