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What to serve for the state dinner? A French chef weighs in

Diplomacy will be on the menu on Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) Diplomacy will be on the menu on Tuesday night. (Rick Bowmer/AP Photo)

Pressure (and pressure cookers, maybe) are on for the White House chefs whipping up Tuesday night’s state dinner for French President Françoise Hollande. After all, the French have been the center of the gastronomic world for centuries.

So, what does a Yank serve the highest-ranking man from the land of haute cuisine?

We asked Francis Layrle, the chef at the new La Piquette in Cleveland Park for his ideas of what should wind up on the White House’s linen-draped tables. The Gascony native is no stranger to serving heads of state: He spent 33 years in the kitchen of the French embassy in Washington, where he cooked for presidents — both French and American —  celebrities, and government officials.

He offered a few guidelines he followed when preparing high-profile meals:

1. Go fresh  — Just as he does in his restaurant, Layrle would seek out the very best product available at the moment. This week, he says that’s a sea bass from North Carolina. Typically, White House chefs present a menu using all-American ingredients, with a nod to their guest country’s cuisine. In 2012, for example, we served the Brits a bison Wellington — a classic English dish with a U.S. twist.

Layrle says a simple but impeccable treatment for the delicate fish is best. Were he wearing a White House toque, he would serve it with a shrimp broth laced with saffron. “Voila, perfect.” (No really, he said that.)

2. Know your guests — At the embassy, Layrle did research on his VIP guests before dreaming up menus for important occasions. Allergies, religious restrictions, and preferences were taken into account.  Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, he said, liked American-style foods, even cheeseburgers. Hollande, he notes, has a penchant for duck confit. And in keeping with Rule #1, he says farms in New York state have lovely birds from which to make the rich dish.

3. Add a wow factor — Layrle once served an ice cream dessert in an elaborate display of sugar elephants as a nod to the Republican mascot in honor of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. But in another dazzling dish, he inadvertently violated rule #2: As a dessert tribute to Francoise Mitterand, he and his team created French mime Marcel Marceu’s iconic hat and red rose out of sugar as a tribute to Mitterand’s party (the red bloom is a  symbol of socialism). Layrle only later learned that the mime and the president were distinctly not friends. “I didn’t know they didn’t like each other,” the chef confessed.

4. Keep it easy (and noncontroversial) to eat — Ladies in gowns shouldn’t have to wrestle with their food. No lobsters in shells, and avoid bones, he says. For example, a loin cut of lamb would be better than a rack, he says. And while he serves foie gras at La Piquette, he acknowledges that not everyone is cool about eating the livers of fattened geese — however much of a delicacy it might be.

More state dinner coverage from menu to Michelle Obama’s style–and everything in between. 

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.



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