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Remembering a special night

Posted: February 16, 2017 5:58 p.m.
Updated: February 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.
C-I file photo/

Jack Brantley and members of his Aberdeen Catery crew with then President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1999. From left are Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Blakeney, Clayton Ferguson, Welch Carson, Doug Martin, Betsy Greenway, Jack Brantley, Wayne Fenters and President Bill Clinton.

From parties at the Masters and gubernatorial inauguration receptions to hosting several Miss Americas at his home, Jack Brantley has certainly done his share of entertaining celebrity guests.

Nonetheless, serving a catered dinner to the President and First Lady of the United States is probably the crowning glory to a long and storied career that shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. 

“It was just one of those things you always hope and pray might happen someday,” Brantley said. “Then all of sudden, Governor West calls -- and it’s happening.” 

The year was 1999, the occasion a small dinner party at the Hilton Head Island home of John Carl and Lois West.  John Carl West, of course, was the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. It was all part of an event known as the Renaissance Weekend, a symposium of world class leaders and thinkers who gather periodically to share ideas on world issues and affairs -- and two of the guests were none other than President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton.

The Clintons, however, apparently weren’t quite up for a crowded, high-energy first night reception. Instead, they opted for a smaller gathering, a dinner party for around 50 at the West’s home.

The West’s -- who were natives and residents of Camden -- turned to their good friend, caterer extraordinaire Jack Brantley, to make the gathering an evening to remember.

Brantley remembered the event as being something of a last minute affair, but not particularly stressful. 

“We didn’t even have enough chairs for everybody so a lot of them just sat around on the floor,” Brantley said.  

In fact, the Clintons were very friendly, down-to-earth, non-demanding and complimentary, and obviously intent on enjoying an easy, informal night, Brantley said.

“They were just as down to earth as anyone you could have wanted to meet – you’d have thought they wanted to come into the kitchen and help us stir the pot,” Brantley said. “They were just as nice as they could be – just one of us.”

Brantley had taken a small group with him to help with the party. One of them was Betsy Greenway.

“It was a lot of fun -- and so interesting,” Greenway said. “Everyone was so nice and so appreciative -- in fact, the president and first lady insisted on coming back to the kitchen to personally meet and thank everyone, and insisted on taking a picture with everybody.”

Greenway also remembered Lois West tersely informing White House security officials there would be no need to run background checks on the caterers; she knew them all very well and would personally vouch for each of them. 

Still, there were certain protocols that still had to be followed, Greenway said.

“I remember they had the nuclear football (the attaché case that goes everywhere with the president)” she said. “The person who was in charge of that actually stayed in a locked bedroom in the house,” she said. “We took a plate to him. We fed the Secret Service and security people, too – they were up in trees around the property -- it was definitely interesting.”

Brantley agreed.

“We made sure no one was left unfed,” he said. 

The menu included bacon wrapped quail breasts and tacos for appetizers -- the tacos in honor of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s penchant for Mexican food -- and a marinated beef tenderloin, wild rice, chilled asparagus, fresh tomatoes stuffed with crab meat, and homemade yeast rolls for dinner. Brantley served Bananas Foster for dessert.

As usual, Brantley’s menu was a hit.  According to a story in the March 4, 1999 C-I, not only did the Clinton’s executive chef ask for some of Brantley’s recipes, but Clinton would go on to brag about the dinner to other luminaries. 

“The president told me that it was the best meal he had ever eaten,” West told the C-I. 

Another former governor and cabinet member, Dick Riley, would later mention to Brantley Clinton’s praise of that evening and especially that meal, Brantley said.

Brantley, as always, has high praise and great appreciation for his staff as well as deep gratitude and appreciation for his customers.

“We have been so fortunate over the years -- it’s the people we work with, the customers, our contacts, who have opened so many doors for us,” Brantley said. “We just keep on trying to keep on.”

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