Tafari Campbell: What we know about Obama chef and loving husband who died paddleboarding in Martha’s Vineyard

The Obamas described Campbell, 45, as ‘a beloved part of our family’ and ‘a truly wonderful man’

Andrea Blanco,Io Dodds
Wednesday 26 July 2023 16:17 BST

Obama Family’s Chef Tafari Campbell Found Dead in Martha’s Vineyard

The search for a missing paddleboarder near the Obamas’ mansion in Martha’s Vineyard ended in tragedy when a dead body in the water was identified as the family’s longtime personal chef.

On Monday 24 July, Massachusetts police named Tafari Campbell, 45, from Virginia, as the man who had perished the previous evening while paddleboarding on Edgartown Great Pond, a large costal pool connected to the Atlantic Ocean.

Campbell had cooked for Barack Obama and his family during their time in the White House and continued to work for them as a personal chef after Mr Obama left office in 2016.

The Obama family described Campbell as “a truly wonderful man”, while his wife Sherise Campbell said she was “heartbroken”.

Here’s everything we know about the case.

What happened?

First responders were first alerted of the emergency at around 7.40pm on Sunday, when they were called to the Obama family’s country estate by reports of a drowning man.

The property is a roughly 7,000 sq ft mansion surrounded by 30 acres of land near Turkeyland Cove on Martha’s Vineyard, a large island south of Cape Cod in New England that has been a popular summer haunt for America's moneyed elite since the 19th century.

Mr Obama purchased the house for approximately $11.75m in 2019.

Officials from Edgartown Fire, State Police patrols, Air Wing and the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department arrived at the scene. A witness who was paddleboarding with the man said he had gone underwater after struggling to stay on the surface, and never come back up.

Edgartown Great Pond

Flight crews, dive teams and boat crews wielding side-scan sonar joined the search, with aerial support from the US Coast Guard (USCG). The victim’s paddle board and hat were found later that day.

On Monday morning, the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) said in a statement that the search was paused to “assess [the] next steps”, before adding that afternoon that they had found a body at around 10am on Monday.

The police search was conducted by divers and boat crews employing side-scan sonar technology and aerial support from the MSP and USCG helicopter crews, its statement said.

“The recovery was made approximately 100 feet from shore at a depth of about eight feet,” MSP said. “The investigation into the fatality is being conducted by the State Police Detective Unit for the Cape and Islands District and Edgartown Police.”

Finally, on Monday evening, MSP named the deceased as 45-year-old Tafari Campbell from Dumfries, Virginia, saying he was a longtime employee of the Obamas and that neither Mr Obama nor his wife Michelle were home at the time of his death.

A cause of death has not been confirmed, but a press release by the law enforcement agency was tagged as a “drowning” on its website.

Who was Tafari Campbell?

Campbell’s name was already familiar to aides, journalists and other people who had worked in and around the Obama White House between 2008 and 2016.

As a longtime chef to America’s 44th president, he had appeared in photos taken by the Associated Press and in a YouTube video posted by Mr Obama’s staff.

Tafari was a beloved part of our family,” the Obamas said in a statement on Monday.

“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. He’s been part of our lives ever since, and our hearts are broken that he’s gone.”

Tafari Campbell, pictured on the South Lawn of the White House in November 2008

A video posted by the then president’s office in 2012 showed Campbell brewing beer using honey from the beehive Michelle Obama had set up on the building’s South Lawn, thought to be the first time anyone has brewed or distilled alcohol on the actual White House premises.

“You don’t want to go too fast, creating a lot of air, which will make the beer taste bad,” Campbell said on camera as he siphoned liquid into a container in a video posted to YouTube that year.

What do we know about his life?

Campbell’s Instagram account is that of a man who took great pride in his craft, enjoyed golfing and improving his fitness, and loved his family.

Interspersed between numerous photos of elegantly-presented dishes, from Chinese dumplings to peach-flavoured mini bread puddings, there are numerous snapshots of him with his wife Sherise, who runs a baking and catering firm and whom Campbell frequently described as his “best friend”.

One photo showed the young couple’s wedding back in 1999, with the caption “happy 21st anniversary!!!!”

Others showed them seeing 2018’s smash hit Black Panther, eating at a restaurant and at the beach on holiday in Aruba.

There are also a few pictures of Campbell with his twin sons, who are now 19 years old.

Tafari Campbell marries his wife in 1999. Her face has been blurred out of respect for her privacy.

He appears to have been a keen sportsman, with videos showing him deadlifting weights and cycling alone during the early Covid-19 pandemic, recording his journeys with a GoPro camera.

In one clip, he practiced his golf swing on the sidewalk outside a suburban home, asking followers to judge his form with one of two options: “Chef, you ready” and “Stick to cheffing!!”

However, a few of Campbell’s Instagram posts suggested he may only have learned to swim, or to swim confidently, within the last five years or so.

In October 2017, he posted a photo showing him and his wife Sherise standing chest deep in crystal-blue waters in Aruba, with the hashtag “#stillcantswim”. One follower asked: “But can you swim though? Lol.”

Campbell responded with a “weary face” emoji, suggesting frustration or lamenting. The Independent has contacted that person for comment.

Tafari Campbell with his wife, whose face has been blurred out of respect for her privacy

About a year and a half later, two videos showed Campbell practicing various swimming strokes over beginner distances, with the hashtags “#Progress” and “#survivalskills”.

Workers at the Edgartown Meat and Fish Market told The Daily Mail that Campbell was “a wonderful guy” who visited regularly to chat about what he was cooking or make special orders of orange juice and strawberry lemonade.

“We saw him last week, he was such a nice and happy guy,” one staff member said. “He didn’t seem to live here but would be here a lot in summer and fall, and bought various things.

“He was nice and quiet; it’s awful to hear that’s happened to him.”

On her own Instagram account on Monday night, Sherise reacted to her husband’s death with one word: “Heartbroken.”

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