As President Obama heads into the stretch run of his second term, he’s proving to be a man who enjoys the relaxed, interpersonal setting of Washington restaurants over the regimented, black-tie formality of White House state dinners.
While he and the first lady have dined countless times at District restaurants, they’ve hosted only a handful of diplomacy-dripping state dinners. Friday’s spread of wild-mushroom soup, Maine lobster and Colorado lamb for Chinese President Xi Jinping will be Obama’s ninth state dinner, ranking him just above George W. Bush and Harry S. Truman, who each hosted six, the fewest among postwar presidents. Compare that with Jimmy Carter, a one-term president, who trotted out the formal china more than 40 times.
So what conclusions — or even speculation — can one draw from these nine menus about Obama’s hospitality and what he may be communicating with his state dinners?
For one thing, the president seems to have a hankering for beef, which has been served as a main course at six state dinners. Is it a statement that America will beef up no matter what the consequences to our health and the environment?
Culinary authority Rick Bayless, who served as guest chef for the 2010 state dinner for then-President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, said the arguments for beef are both poetic and prosaic.
“American beef is legendary around the world, so it’s kind of a nice thing for us to be able to do a beef dish,” said the chef, who regularly hosted the Obamas at his Chicago restaurants before they moved into the White House.
But beef isn’t just a symbol of American wealth, girth and gastronomy. It’s also a practical protein to serve, Bayless said.
“As long as you’ve got a vegetarian option, beef tends to not be polarizing. Chicken is way too pedestrian to serve,” Bayless said. “If you served duck, lamb, goat, they all have big chunks of people who won’t eat them. So beef is something that is . . . at least in the U.S., a universally accepted option for a main course.”
Bayless offered these words two days before the White House released the menu for Friday’s state dinner. As if refuting one of the Obamas’ favorite chefs, the latest menu, a collaboration between guest chef Anita Lo, White House chef Cristeta Comerford and White House pastry chef Susan Morrison, featured lamb for the main course. Comerford informed the media on Thursday that there’s no statement behind the move to lamb. The meat simply looked good in the market, and it paired well with the accompanying baby broccoli.
It can be difficult for guest chefs to use state dinners for a pet cause or to highlight a special farm. For starters, purveyors rarely, if ever, know they are supplying ingredients for a state dinner. Chefs can request ingredients, but then those requests go through the White House storeroom, which places the orders. The ingredients aren’t delivered directly to the White House; they’re picked up or sent to another government building. Anonymity is security.
“There are so many restrictions for getting stuff into the White House,” Bayless said. “Those [restrictions] are not just because somebody’s picky. They’re because you are serving a meal to some very important people, and no one can get sick, nothing can be tainted.”
Guest chefs, of course, may still try to push an agenda. Marcus Samuelsson, the man behind Red Rooster in Harlem, served as guest chef in 2009 for the Obamas’ first state dinner, honoring then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. The menu was predominantly vegetarian, a nod to Singh’s diet. But Samuelsson added a second entree: green curry prawns with caramelized salsify. The chef figured it would be a “huge opportunity” to promote Gulf of Mexico seafood post-Hurricane Katrina.Not that many diners knew this. The menu didn’t identity the source of the prawns.
Perhaps more successful was Samuelsson’s symbolic decision to serve American and Indian breads, from cornbread to naan.
“We added a full bread course so people could literally break bread,” Samuelsson said. “That was something that was important to me. People didn’t know each other.”
Over two terms, Obama state dinners have charted a curious course. The first and second dinners featured guest chefs, Samuelsson in 2009 and Bayless the following year. But for the next five state dinners, spanning more than three years, the cooking fell squarely on the shoulders of former pastry chef Bill Yosses and Comerford, a respected veteran of the White House kitchen. Bayless has a theory on why the president turned his back on celebrity chefs for so long: These outsiders are a logistical hassle for White House and Secret Service staffs.
Samuelsson, for instance, said he brought 10 assistants with him. That equates to 10 background checks, 10 people to monitor as they work inside the president’s home and 10 people who must conform to all the White House rules (such as no social media, no matter how many followers you have on Twitter). Remember what happened at that first state dinner? Party crashers.
That’s not to say there’s a connection between uninvited guests and too many cooks in the kitchen. But still, the party-crashing episode seemed to put the White House on edge, Bayless said. The Chicago chef was allowed to bring only two cooks.
And yet, for the dinner honoring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this year, a guest chef made a surprise return. “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto worked with Comerford and Morrison on the Japanese-influenced menu. Likewise, Lo, the chef and owner of Annisa in New York, collaborated on Friday’s menu, which concluded with a poppy-seed-bread-and-butter pudding with Meyer lemon curd and litchi sorbet.
Why the return of a guest chef? Perhaps the White House recognizes how meaningful the dinners are to outside chefs?
“It was one of the great events of my life,” Bayless said. “It’s not a world that I live in at all, so it was really special to be part of it for a couple of days.”
Emily Heil contributed to this report.