On his old Instagram account, Tafari Campbell only identified himself as a “personal chef and amateur golfer,” which was probably not unusual in his line of business. After all, one of the most important skills in cooking for hire is discretion.
On his two IG accounts, created days before he was found dead Monday after paddle boarding on Martha’s Vineyard, there is no evidence that Campbell, 45, prepared meals for the president, celebrities and heads of state in his role as White House cook or personal chef to Barack and Michelle Obama. Her posts and reels were just a catalog of her daily interests and passions: swimming, fitness, cooking and family. (Accounts have recently been made private.)
Even those who considered him friends didn’t know for sure that Campbell was the personal chef of one of the world’s most recognizable families. Rahman “Rock” Harper, chef and founder of Queen Mother’s Fried Chicken in Arlington, Va., knew Campbell when she worked at the White House, where she cooked for two presidents from 2007 to 2016 as a sous chef. Campbell left the White House to work for Obama, but Harper had to make her own decisions
“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 realized he was their chef.”
Friends say Campbell’s cooking skills, combined with his rock-solid character and penchant for promoting others above himself, made him an ideal candidate to be the former president and first lady’s personal chef. The Obamas “could hire any chef in the world, pretty much,” Harper said. “So I think the fact that he worked at the White House and then he was asked to leave with them has a direct connection to how great he was and just an incredible guy.”
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 “went into the water, was seen briefly struggling to stay on the surface, and then sank and did not resurface,” according to a statement from the Massachusetts State Police. The Daily Mail quoted another police statement as saying that Campbell was not attached to his paddle board when he lost his balance, that another paddle boarder tried to save him but failed, and that there was no evidence that the death was suspicious. As word of Campbell’s death spread, tributes poured in on social media and elsewhere. The Obamas called him a “favorite 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, polite and gentle a person as I’ve ever met.” I never saw him tensed or upset, he always went about his business in silence.