Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Marcus Samuelsson Will Guest Chef at White House For The Obamas' First State Dinner

Update: Samuelsson's State dinner menu is here; some photos of him cooking at the White House are here

A historic dinner, and a guest chef who will go down in White House culinary history

Next Tuesday, Nov. 24 is a big day at the White House, and a big day for Marcus Samuelsson, of New York's Aquavit restaurant. Samuelsson has been invited to be on the cooking line for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's first State Dinner, in an almost unheard of move in White House kitchen history; guest chefs have historically been a rarity, especially for high-profile events. The State Dinner is in honor of India, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who will be accompanied by his wife Gursharan Kaur. Samuelsson will be cooking alongside Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, who is in charge of the very top-secret menu, which has been in the planning stages by Mrs. Obama and her staff since mid-summer; the process has included special tasting events. (Samuelsson, above)

Although almost every detail about the State Dinner has attained a Def Con 4 level of secrecy, your intrepid blogger hears that the menu will be sustainably sourced, with a focus on the best of regional, seasonal American ingredients. The selection of Samuelsson speaks to this; Aquavit, which Samuelsson co-owns, is a Scandinavian restaurant that manages to rely on local sourcing--and it's beloved by food critics. Samuelsson is Swedish-American; he's a naturalised American citizen, but was born in Ethiopia and adopted by a Swedish couple who raised him in Sweden; he came to America in 1991. His biological father, a priest, remains in Ethiopia, where Samuelsson has eight half-siblings. He's had a big career: In addition to Aquavit, he's also masterminded Riingo, a Japanese restaurant, and is the author of New American Table, a cookbook that just came out in late October, which has recipes that are an exuberant, creative mixture of all the ethnic cooking heritages that have led to (and now exist within) American cuisine; it's The American Immigrant Experience in recipes--so much so that the edges of the book are trimmed in red, white and blue. Samuelsson himself, as a choice to guest chef in the White House kitchen--is a bit of a metaphor for all the immigrants from India--and every other part of the globe-- who have come to America, and worked hard to succeed. That kind of aesthetic is also reflective of the Obama aesthetic, in general, in which all of America is embraced. Samuelsson is also the author or co-author of these other cookbooks on both Scandinavian and African cuisine. Among his many awards, Samuelsson was named by the James Beard Foundation as "Rising Star Chef" in 1999, and was also the youngest-ever winner of their "Best Chef: New York City" accolade. (Above: President and Mrs. Obama at the only other formal dinner held at the White House to date, for the National Governors Association, on Feb. 22)

Until the Obamas moved into the White House, guest chefs were a rare occurrence. But there's now a constant stream of culinary guests in the kitchen and at events, which has included some of the biggest names in the American food world: Mario Batalli, Jose Andres, and Bobby Flay, among others. This has been due to the influence of assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass, who was also charged with scoping out the guest chef for the State Dinner. Kass spent a lot of time checking out the food and chefs at numerous restaurants, including Charlie Palmer of Aureole in New York; Patrick O’Connell from the Inn at Little Washington; Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York; and Michel Nischan of the Dressing Room in Westport, Conn. The last two chefs on this list are well known to White House Kitchen staff: Barber cooked the Obama's New York Date Night dinner for them, at Blue Hill. And Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses' last civilian job before he ascended to the White House was creating the pastry operation for Dressing Room, which was owned by Paul Newman before he passed away. (Kass, above)

The Guest List...and other details...
Why does it take so long to plan a State Dinner? Well, it's among the most high profile social event that any president and first lady can hold...and Mrs. Obama, as hostess, has had endless lists of things to do, as has her entire staff. There's an enormous amount of detail to be overseen and coordinated, from china selection, to flatware and stemware and linen selection, to flower arrangements, to music, to invitations.... And the very tricky guest list is an entire project unto itself, which is being handled by Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. State Dinners are as much about diplomatic and political issues as they are about socializing, and of course an invitation to the very first Obama State Dinner is very, very sought after. So the list has had to be scrupulously honed--but sources are saying that there could be as many as 300 to 400 guests, and the White House has said the official list will be revealed on the day of the event. Here's a good example of the epic nature of it all: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly hand-delivered the invitation to dinner to Prime Minister Singh when she visited India in July.

Ms. Rogers is enormously creative, and has masterminded all kinds of events at unusual locations in and around the White House, so the State Dinner is going to be not in the State Dining Room, but beneath a huge tent on the White House grounds. Although Mrs. Obama has hosted hundreds of events at the White House to date, and entertained the spouses of visiting world leaders, the State Dinner is a debut, of sorts. It's historic, since it's the very first one, and could well become the yardstick by which all other events are measured. Staff member Samantha Tubman, who has been described as a "one-woman army," has been critical for all the planning. Laura Dowling, who was selected as the new White House Florist less than two weeks ago, will make her own floral debut at the dinner. Look for endless new stories about every detail of the dinner, during the course of the next week. Not to mention all the scrutiny of Mrs. Obama's hair, gown, and of course, her shoes and jewels....

Related: Building the tent for the dinner is here. Former White House Chef Walter Scheib III dishes on State Dinners past here [video].

*Kass photo by Obama Foodorama; Samuelsson photo is a publicity shot. The First Couple by Reuters.