A tall order: The challenges of being a state dinner waiter at the White House

What's the goal for the Obamas next state dinner for the Mexican president? Keep the party crashers out.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

To be a waiter working amid Washington's power brokers means having one's Social Security number screened weekly, if not daily. It means not flinching in dismay when lawmakers -- more concerned with sobriety than respectful of vintage -- order white wine with ice. (Oh yes, dear oenophiles, it's true.) And it means not letting one's nerves run amok and one's hands go shaky when serving red wine or sizzling mole to the leader of the free world.

As the White House staff prepares for Wednesday's state dinner in honor of Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife, Margarita Zavala, waiters will be on site by dawn for what will come close to being an 18-hour day. They'll receive their table assignments and be alerted to matters of protocol. Of special note in the waiter's dossier of do's and don'ts will be guests who, for religious reasons, do not drink alcohol or who suffer from food allergies. No one wants a peanut-related international incident at what will be the second state dinner for the Obamas and the first for social secretary Julianna Smoot.

The waiters' goal, when they serve the meal prepared by Chicago-based guest chef Rick Bayless, is to be attentive yet unobtrusive. The waiters are the supporting cast in the most elaborately stage-managed of all White House events; but if anyone remembers their performance, it will be considered a failure.

For large affairs like a state dinner, the White House over the years has supplemented its staff with waiters from some of the city's high-end caterers such as Design Cuisine and Susan Gage. These are experts who are used to passing cocktails to presidents and prime ministers, and who have become skilled at turning a deaf ear to the most enticing -- or even incriminating -- political chatter. "If you're doing it right, no one sees you," says Bill Homan, whose company, Design Cuisine, catered the official luncheon at the Capitol following President Obama's inauguration.

One of the freelance waiters regularly dispatched to the White House, the State Department and other places where the powerful eat and drink is Chris Freeman, who has worked for Susan Gage since the latter days of the Clinton administration. He has worked presidential events in private homes as well as those at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Freeman was not scheduled to work the state dinner for Mexico, but he knows what it's like to be on call for such a big night. He has gone through the Secret Service vetting and he knows the drill: Arrive early, set up the room and then leave to make way for the bomb-sniffing dogs. He has been a secondary server -- passing plates to nervous novice guests, as well as the more seasoned members of the Washington establishment. And he's even been the principal server, the one waiter designated by security who is allowed to approach the president and place his meal in front of him.

"There's an element of being onstage," Freeman says. "The president is entertaining world leaders and you have to essentially become an extension of that hospitality."

The first time Freeman worked a Clinton dinner back in 2000, he had to fight the nervous urge to stare at the president. Rule No. 1: Don't gawk at the guests. Rule No. 2: Don't talk to the guests unless necessary. Rule No. 3: Don't hover.

When he worked a Cinco de Mayo party during the Bush administration, he watched in dismay as a distracted guest backed into a longtime White House waiter holding a tray of something with a dark brown sauce -- mole, perhaps? The goo cascaded down the guest's suit jacket. A staffer whisked the soiled jacket into the nether regions of the White House, only to emerge shortly thereafter with it freshly dry-cleaned. Rule No. 4: Don't spill on the guests, but if you do, be prepared to quickly mitigate the damage.

Freeman, 40, a tall, slim, married father of two small children, lives in Alexandria. His professional attire is a fashionable black suit, crisp white shirt and skinny black tie. With his short black hair precisely clipped and gelled, he has the look of an actor or even a model, but unlike probably half the waiters working in places such as New York or Los Angeles, he is not waiting for his close-up. He left a job in publishing to try his hand at catering and has made this into a career, which is something more typical in Europe than in the United States. Still, waiters here have become more professional in the past decade.

"It used to be like that scene of Brad Pitt in 'Fight Club,' with headphones on, throwing rolls down on people's plates," Freeman says, laughing. "With the shift in the economy, we've gone from the employer of the wayward to people who take it seriously."

The logistics of any presidential gathering are endless, and security is hush-hush. But while the chef must wrestle with the nuts and bolts of ordering and preparing food in a secure environment, the waiter is part therapist and part Miss Manners. What if a guest is draining his wine glass too quickly? "He gets a little less attentive service," Freeman says. But that doesn't often happen, because guests in Washington are experienced socializers, Freeman says. "They know not to enjoy themselves too much."

Freeman has also perfected the complicated art of dutifully recognizing the powerful (because what's the fun of having power if it goes unnoticed?) while telegraphing the impression that power is no big deal. To wit, he will address ambassadors, secretaries and prime ministers by their titles -- which means he must be schooled in political esoterica -- but allows all their actions and words to fade into a blur never to be repeated.

"I don't even have a Facebook page," Freeman says. Why give himself the temptation to serve and tell?

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