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For state dinner, White House chefs go foraging, in true Nordic style

White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford shows her canape planned for the state dinner: baby radish with Vermont butter and Maldon salt, presented on wood that she said “came from our back yard.” (Agence France-Presse Photo/Saul Loeb/Getty Images)
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New Nordic cuisine, with its emphasis on locally foraged ingredients and fermented foods, has redefined Scandinavian cooking in recent years, giving it an identity beyond pickled herring and that frequently scorned dried cod known as lutefisk.

Of course, the trouble with New Nordic cuisine is that, by definition, it’s rooted in place, non-transferrable to, say, the District, where the White House will host its 12th state dinner on Friday to honor the heads of state of five Nordic countries. But that didn’t stop White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford from saluting the work of chefs like Noma’s Rene Redzepi with baby radishes impaled on pieces of foraged wood.
“This wood came from our back yard,” says Comerford, who didn’t know what kind of tree it was.

In developing the multi-course state dinner menu, Comerford couldn’t integrate culinary traditions from all five countries — Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland — so instead she and White House executive pastry chef Susan Morrison prepared American dishes with Nordic touches. Comerford singles out her canape of chicken and waffles, a classic soul food dish with a faint echo of Scandinavian cuisine.
“In reading, I realized that waffles are such a big thing in the Nordic countries,” the White House chef said. “So we’re doing chicken and waffles, which is a American thing.”

The menu freewheels between American and Nordic cooking traditions. Rather than gravlax, the Nordic dish of cured salmon, the White House kitchen is preparing salt-cured ahi tuna with baby radishes and a watermelon-juniper granita. Rather than a reindeer stew — using a meat next-to-impossible to source in the United States — Comerford is serving a venison tartare with truffle vinaigrette. Rather than having guests knock back shots of aquavit, the kitchen is incorporating the spiced spirit into a seafood cocktail.

For dessert, each table will feature an edible fishing boat made of chocolate and gum paste. The boat will fly the American flag as well as all five flags of the honored countries. Miniature pastries will be placed around the illuminated hull of the boat, like so many fish in the sea. These sweets will include raspberry kringle, elderberry custard pie, ginger-gooseberry cookies and red currant chocolates.

“I kind of love what they did with the desserts,” says Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica and author of “Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking,” which received a James Beard nomination this year.
“I feel like they really captured the Nordic flavors,” Goldstein continues, rattling off such ingredients as elderberry, lingonberry and red currants. “I just thought those sounded absolutely beautiful, but also classic.”

White House set to toast Nordic leaders with aquavit, ice carvings… and Demi Lovato

Goldstein was less impressed with the savory side of the state dinner menu. Her criticisms were not limited to dishes that seemed, on their face, to have little to do with Nordic culture, like the baby radishes with Vermont butter and Maldon salt. But she noticed a wintry tone to some offerings, such as the Duroc pork belly with a Granny Smith apple salad and red-wine braised beef short ribs. The menu “somehow flips it back to autumn or winter to me,” the author says.

Goldstein also noticed ingredients and dishes that seem to shift the focus away from Nordic and American food cultures: Maldon salt (England), radishes with butter (France) and truffles (France or Italy, mostly, depending on the variety). “It doesn’t have a lot of integrity,” Goldstein says of the cultural shifts. “It’s all over the place.”

But Goldstein, who is also a Russian professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., praised the use of cardamom, juniper, aquavit, beets and other ingredients used in Nordic cooking. She also likes the focus on American wines, including RdV Vineyard’s “Rendezvous,” a Virginia wine based on the great Merlot-based blends of Bordeaux’s Right Bank.

So does Rutger de Vink, owner of RdV in Delaplane, Va. When Michelle Obama and friends visited his vineyard two years ago, he joked that maybe one day the first family would serve his wines at the White House. The day will come tomorrow. It may be an historic one for Virginia wine.

“I think it is the first time that red wine from Virginia has been served at the White House,” de Vink says. “I can’t verify that.”

The full menu:


Chicken and Waffles

Duroc Pork Belly with Granny Smith Apple Salad

Venison Tartare with Truffle Vinaigrette

Deviled Eggs with Ossetra Caviar

Langoustine Roll with Spiced Beets

Aquavit Seafood Cocktail

Baby Radish with Vermont Butter and Maldon Salt


Salt-Cured Ahi Tuna with Pickled Young Radish and Watermelon Juniper Granite
Paired with Trisaetum Dry Riesling “Estates” 2014

Tomato Tartare with Cardamom Yogurt, Micro Lettuce and a Citrus Vinaigrette
Paired with Grgich Hills Fume Blanc “Estate” 2013

Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with Hot Kale Salad and Thyme Dumplings
Paired with RdV “Rendezvous” 2010


Caramel Almond Mille-Feuille with Vanilla Bean Chantilly and Lingonberry Cream