Monday, February 23, 2009

In The White House Kitchen, First Lady Joins Chefs To Explain The 2009 Governors Ball Menu

First black tie event of the Obama administration...
President Obama
and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the National Governors Association for their very first formal event at the White House, on Sunday, February 22. The annual dinner is a White House tradition, and it was President and Mrs. Obama's first outing as hosts. (Above: The First Lady, Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses)

Things were hopping backstage at the White House on Sunday afternoon, when Mrs. Obama gave the traditional First Lady menu preview, opening the small kitchen to both the media and visiting culinary students for a look at how the kitchen staff preps for a formal dinner.

Three students from the Culinary Arts Program and three from the Pastry Arts Program at the L'Academie de Cuisine in nearby Gaithersburg, Maryland, got a tour of the kitchen, and watched as White House Kitchen staff prepped.

Accompanied by Mrs. Obama and Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses explained the menu ingredients and choices, and stressed that all items were American, though not necessarily organic or sourced local to the White House; the non-local angle for the dinner was meant to highlight foods from different regions across the US, to celebrate all of America's bounty.

But the First Lady lauding local foods made the pull-quote on the White House blog in a comment about carrots; the excellent message seems to be eat healthfully and whatever is grown local to you (American!), and thus prosper....

In keeping with the America as Foodie Showplace theme, Chef Comerford and her staff did a terrific job of working in ingredients from at least thirteen different states. These are listed below with each course.

2009 Governors Ball Dinner Menu

Chesapeake Crab Agnolottis with Roasted Sunchokes
(Maryland for the crab

Wine pairing: Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (California)

Wagyu Beef and Nantucket Scallops
(Nebraska for the beef, Massachusetts for the scallops)

Glazed Red Carrots, Portobello Mushroom and Creamed Spinach
(Local carrots, California mushrooms, Ohio spinach)

Wine pairing: Archery Summit Pinot Noir "Estate" 2004 (Oregon)

Winter Citrus Salad with Pistachios and Lemon Honey Vinaigrette
(California winter lettuces, local watermelon radish, Florida grapefruit and orange)

Huckleberry Cobbler with Caramel Ice Cream
(Idaho for the berries)

Wine pairing: Black Star Farms "A Capella" Riesling Ice Wine 2007 (Michigan)

Chef Comerford explained the pan-American sourcing in a bit more detail to the culinary students, and pointed out that the Wagyu beef used for the evening's entree was from a special, unnamed herd in Nebraska and that the Red Dragon carrots are from Ohio. Chef Yosses said that the Huckleberries for his Huckleberry cobbler dessert grow wild on a mountainside in Idaho.

"They're [Huckleberries] not cultivated," Chef Yosses said. "Mother nature seems to want to keep those for herself."

Chef Yosses added that the Huckleberry cobbler is now an Obama family favorite. Mrs. Obama said that the President calls Chef Yosses "The Crust Master" because Yosses is a whiz at pie crusts. (Dessert detail, in pic)

Chef Comerford said that relationships with local producers are key to the day-to-day food prep in the White House, and said that organic-if-possible items are sourced from Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, but that providers don't know their foods are headed for the White House for security reasons (this three-state range for White House foods led to the calculation of at least thirteen states for the Governors' dinner).

The newest Obama kitchen staff addition, assistant chef Sam Kass, accompanied the Obamas to the White House from Chicago. He took a micro star turn on the C-SPAN video coverage of the event, and explained the details of the warm citrus salad he was making for the dinner. Ingredients: Locally grown watermelon radishes, crystal lettuce and other winter lettuces (California), grapefruit and orange sections (Florida), lightly candied pistachios, with a honey lemon vinaigrette. (Above: Kass, salading)

Chef Comerford noted that there are usually seven full-time chefs at the White House, with two full-time Pastry Chefs, and that cooks from the Navy Mess and a deep list of talented local chefs come on board to help for larger White House events.

Prep time for this particular dinner was two days in advance, and Chef Comerford said that planning usually takes much longer than prep. The First Lady and her mother, Marian Robinson, had a preview lunch of the menu items, to discuss it with Chefs Yosses and Comerford. (In pic: Prep cooks at work, with Red Dragon carrots in center)

"Cris and Bill are very flexible, they made our kooky ideas make sense as a menu," Mrs. Obama said. "One of the delights of living here is everyone is going above and beyond...they can make a mean batch of French Fries, too...we have this talent base here, people who are committed to making the White House a place of pride and grace for the whole country...and what makes it special is that every day they make it feel like home, too."

At the preview, Chef Yosses displayed a tray of desserts that would be served to guests who weren't at the formal dinner, but who were showing up for the Earth Wind & Fire concert that took place afterward, in the East Room. The dessert tray included: Maple truffles, New Orleans Pralines, pear layer cake, Cheesecake Lollipops, mini Huckleberry tarts, Meringue,Raspberry tarts and Passion Fruit tarts. Members of the media happily indulged. (Pic: L to R, White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers, Mrs. Obama, Comerford, and Yosses)

During the dinner, the President avoided any foodie metaphors in his address to the Governors, instead telling them they are "...where the rubber hits the road" in terms of fixing the fiscal mess, which had been a subject of debate all weekend during meetings. The mood was a little bit lighter in the kitchen.

Above: Yosses presenting desserts to the media, while the culinary students watch.

*Photos by Getty and Reuters.