Even those who considered him a friend didn’t know for certain that Campbell was the personal chef for one of the most recognizable families in the world. Rahman “Rock” Harper, chef and founder of Queen Mother’s Fried Chicken in Arlington, Va., had known Campbell when he worked at the White House, where he cooked for two presidents as a sous chef from 2007 to 2016. Campbell left the White House to work for the Obamas, but Harper had to determine that on his own.
“He couldn’t really tell me, but I kind of put two and two together that he was leaving the White House because he got a job,” Harper said. “I figured out that he was their chef.”
Friends say that Campbell’s cooking skills, combined with his rock-solid character and his penchant for promoting others over himself, made him an ideal candidate to become personal chef for the former president and first lady. The Obamas “can hire any chef in the world, pretty much,” Harper said. “So I think the fact that he worked at the White House and then was asked to leave with them is a direct connection to how wonderful and just an incredible guy he was.”
Campbell’s body was recovered Monday from Edgartown Great Pond, near the Obamas’ home on Martha’s Vineyard. He had gone paddle boarding the night before, and a fellow paddle boarder said he had “gone into the water, appeared to briefly struggle to stay on the surface, and then submerged and did not resurface,” according to a statement from the Massachusetts State Police. The Daily Mail quoted another statement from the police saying that Campbell was not tethered to his paddle board when he lost his balance and fell off, that another paddle boarder tried but failed to save him, and that there was no evidence that the death was suspicious.
The Obamas, according to the police, were not at home at the time.
The tributes started appearing on social media and elsewhere as word of Campbell’s death spread. The Obamas called him a “beloved part of our family.” Derrick Wood, the mayor of Dumfries, Va., where Campbell and his wife and family lived, called him “a talented chef, father, husband, and a passionate soul.” Sam Kass, a former White House chef and policy adviser, called Campbell “as kind, gentle and decent man as I have met. I never saw him stressed or flustered, he just always quietly handled his business.”
On a phone call from Orange, New South Wales, Australia, where he was on a business trip, Kass said Campbell was “very unique.” Campbell wasn’t self-effacing, but he wasn’t a self-promoter, either. “He was shy by nature, but once you got to know him, he’d open up,” Kass said. “He was great and dynamic as well.”
You could see bits and pieces of his personality in a White House video, Kass said, in which Campbell collaborated with Kass to make honey porter and honey brown beers. Campbell was meticulous in his approach to the beers, Kass said, but he was also funny. Like the moment when Campbell closed the door on the White House “beer cellar,” then turned to the camera and said, “Gotta keep that under lock and key.”
A native of New York, Campbell studied the culinary arts at Northern Virginia Community College, Kass said. But Campbell also had mentors inside the White House kitchen, including executive chef Cristeta Comerford and assistant chef Tommy Kurpradit. Everyone who worked with Campbell noted not only his meticulous nature, but also his sense of humor. Bill Yosses, a former White House pastry chef, said Campbell’s dry wit kept colleagues in good spirits, even in the high-pressure atmosphere of cooking for world leaders.
“He was an extraordinary person and chef,” Yosses said. “We all loved him so.”
Campbell was also married to a chef. Sherise Campbell has her own baking and catering company called Sweet Sage. Sherise is also food service director at First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dumfries, where she has worked for about a decade, said pastor Luke E. Torian. The pastor has been speaking with Sherise two or three times a day since he learned about Campbell’s death, Torian said. The couple have twin sons, Xavier and Savin, who are now young adults.
“As one could imagine, it’s a lot,” Torian said. “She’s dealing with a lot right now.”
On the Instagram account for her company, Sherise wrote: “My heart is broken. My life and our family’s life is forever changed. Please pray for me and our families as I deal with the loss of my husband.”
Wood, the mayor of Dumfries, said he has been fielding calls and messages from people across the country looking to express their condolences. Even though he’s a trained cook himself, Wood said he wasn’t aware one of his town’s residents was the personal chef to the Obamas, a fact that doesn’t surprise those who knew Campbell.
“He’s just not out there being like, ‘Yeah, I cook for the Obamas,’” Kass said. “That’s just him in a nutshell.”
Added Torian: “Tafari and Sherise both were very respectful of his employer … and did not seek to exploit that, which is very admirable.”
That may also explain, in part, why the Obamas considered him part of the family. In their statement to the media, the former president and first lady wrote: “When we first met him, he was a talented sous chef at the White House — creative and passionate about food, and its ability to bring people together. In the years that followed, we got to know him as a warm, fun, extraordinarily kind person who made all of our lives a little brighter.”
“That’s why, when we were getting ready to leave the White House, we asked Tafari to stay with us, and he generously agreed,” the Obamas continued. “He’s been part of our lives ever since, and our hearts are broken that he’s gone.”
Outside the kitchen, Campbell was into physical fitness. Last year, when Harper saw him in the grocery store, he noticed that Campbell was in great shape. “He never looked like he was in bad shape, but he wasn’t cut,” Harper said. “I was like, ‘Yo, what are you doing?’”
“I thought he was 30-something,” Harper added. “I just found out yesterday that he was 45.”
Campbell had also taken up golfing in recent years. Torian would sometimes play a round with the chef. “He was a double-digit handicap, but he was working on it,” the pastor said.
But it was his food that earned him so many admirers, including the one man who had held the highest office in the land. “As my former boss liked to point out Tafari was a better chef than me, and he was absolutely right,” Kass wrote on Instagram.
Those cooking skills are what his friends hope people will remember most about Campbell.
“He spread a lot of joy through his food and through his presence,” Harper said. “He helped nourish one of the most beloved families. Not that they’re more important than anybody else. But that speaks to how awesome he was.”