After months of planning, the President and First Lady are set to welcome President Hu Jintao...and the White House kitchen is, too...
President Obama will welcome President Hu Jintao of China to the White House tonight for a small private dinner, in advance of tomorrow's highly formal State Visit.
It will be the eighth time the two presidents have met, and the first time that President Hu has dined at the White House since 2006, when he had a private lunch with President George W. Bush. Wednesday's glamorous and elaborate State Dinner, which comes after a huge morning arrival ceremony on the South Lawn and a day of meetings, will be profoundly different from that lunch, and reflects China's emergence onto the global stage as a force to be reckoned with. But while foreign policy and the American presidency may have changed, there's a culinary constant between President Hu's last lunch and his visit this week: Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford. (Top: Comerford, photographed during a summer visit to China; above: Presidents Obama and Hu in November, on the sidelines of the Seoul G20 Summit)
Comerford began working at the White House in 1995, and by the time President Hu was enjoying his White House lunch, she had been appointed Top Toque. First Lady Michelle Obama elected to keep Comerford as her own Exec Chef, but for the previous two State Dinners she's hosted, Mrs. Obama has paired Comerford with a celeb guest chef. She's the only First Lady in modern times to have done so.
On Wednesday afternoon, when the East Wing reveals the top-secret State Dinner menu, the guest list, and details of the decor, America will also discover if Comerford has a co-chef. Still, although Mrs. Obama is a very creative hostess, there are some things that can be expected to occur, thanks to protocol considerations, and thanks to Mrs. Obama's own predilections and style.
The Kitchen Garden and the Bee Hive as menu superstars
Featuring the delights from the First Lady's globally famous Kitchen Garden in the most high-profile dinners held at the White House is yet another way to message her healthy eating campaign, and to encourage gardening. It also brings the message to an international audience, since all eyes will be on the White House on Wednesday.
During the Fall Harvest of the garden, both Mrs. Obama and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass told the visiting school kids that they were very lucky to be among the relatively tiny population of citizens who actually eat from the Kitchen Garden. (Photo: Mrs. Obama and Kass, mid-harvest)
"The food from this Kitchen Garden has been used in big important dinners," Mrs. Obama said, adding that world leaders had eaten the same veggies she wanted the kids to sample.
"Do you realize that only--only--the First Family, their guests, State Dinners, and our great friends at Miriam's Kitchen--they're the only people who get to eat out of this garden?" Kass asked the kids, as he touted the wonders of the raw vegetables.
It's a good bet that some winter lettuces and herbs from the Kitchen Garden will be included on the State Dinner menu, especially because the White House is very proud of the fact that the garden grows vegetables even when it's snowing in DC, thanks to protective hoop houses (and by the way, it's snowing in DC right now). Some kind of pickled condiment or chutney made with Kitchen Garden vegetables is a good bet, too; Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses became a big pickling enthusiast this year. He likes to make tea from herb seeds, too.
The White House Bee Hive produced 160 pounds of honey in 2010 and Yosses typically incorporates the home-grown sweetness into desserts for high-profile events and celebrations. White House honey was used for both the first and second State Dinners, and Mrs. Obama has included it, packaged in artisan-designed jars, in her diplomatic gifts for international visitors, too.
Gulf seafood could well be in the spotlight on the State Dinner menu, continuing the months-long White House campaign of highlighting that region's offerings, to help the damaged commercial fishing industry after last year's BP oil spill disaster. More than 2,000 pounds of Gulf shrimp and crab were served during holiday receptions.
American wines are served at all White House dinners, a long-standing tradition.
Creating the State Dinner menu
Traditionally, a State Dinner menu is not intended to replicate the home cuisine of the Honored Guest. Rather, after weeks of tasting and sampling sessions with the First Lady, the menu is designed to highlight the diverse bounty of America's own lovely regional cuisines, with perhaps a nod to the Honored Guest's culinary traditions. The same is true for meals that are not State Dinners. (Above: Comerford with Mrs. Obama)
For instance, the entree for President Hu's 2006 lunch was Wild-caught Alaskan Halibut with Mushroom Essence. It came after an Asian fusion soup that had Seared Ginger-scented Dumplings floating in a Butter Heirloom Corn Broth with Scallions. Fish, mushrooms, scallions, broths, and dumplings are all staples of Chinese cuisine, but they're widely used in American cuisine, too.
Part of the social diplomacy of State Visits requires knowing the food habits, or allergies, or preferences of the Honored Guest, and this is considered when creating the menu. And in addition to President Hu having already dined at the White House, Comerford has spent quality knife-time with three of President Hu's own Top Toques.
Last August, Comerford visited China with the Club des Chefs des Chefs, the exclusive fraternity of chefs who cook for world leaders and royal families, and Hu's chefs were part of the week-long meeting. Anything Comerford may not have discovered on her own about President Hu is taken care of by the Social Office, led by Social Secretary Julianna Smoot, and by Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall and her staff; the hundreds of people who work for months planning State Visits ensure that guests are well accommodated in every aspect, including food. This is Smoot's second time managing a State Visit for the Obamas, and Ambassador Marshall's third for the Obamas.
The first State Dinner, for India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a good example of food preferences in action. Singh eats no meat, but he does eat fish. So when he was honored in November of 2009, Comerford, joined by visiting chef Marcus Samuelsson, created a vegetable-intensive menu. There were two entrees offered: Roasted Potato Dumplings with Tomato Chutney, and Green Curry Prawns with Caramelized Salsify. It was the first time in White House culinary history that an entree selection that was entirely vegetarian was offered to guests (the full menu is here). (Above: The President and Mrs. Obama with Singh and his wife, Mrs. Gursharon Kaur)
A ballet on steroids
With or without a guest chef, Comerford and the White House team will have their hands full on Wednesday. The actual service time for State Dinners is very short, and dozens of guests have to be simultaneously served perfectly plated dishes for each course. UPDATE, Tuesday evening: The White House announced that the State Dinner will be just an hour and twenty minutes long, from 7:35 PM to 8:55 PM. It will be held in the State Dining Room, and a Reception will follow in the East Room. The State Dining Room seats just 140 guests.
Timing of the courses is dependent on things like the Presidents' toast remarks, so the actual dinner service is something of a ballet, combined with juggling and sprinting. The last time Comerford cooked a State Dinner without a companion chef was in September of 2008, when the Bushes honored Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor for the final State Visit of the presidency.
The most recent State Visit from China was thirteen years ago, when President Bill Clinton welcomed President Jiang Zemin on Oct. 29, 1997. President Ronald Reagan hosted President Li Xiannian in 1985.
Related: The menu for the second State Dinner of the administration, in honor of President Felipe Calederon of Mexico, is here. Guest Chef Rick Bayless joined the White House chefs.
Related: President Obama welcomed President Hu to the White House on Tuesday evening, Jan. 18, for a private dinner. At the State Department on Friday, Sec. Clinton delivered a major address on US-China relations in the 21st century. Read the press briefing on the State Visit. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan is among the first invitees to publicly announce that she's been invited to the State Dinner. House Speaker John Boehner has declined his invitation. The White House announced the State Visit in December of 2010.
*Top photo of Comerford by Mei Le; second by AFP; third and fifth by EGK/ObamaFoodorama; fourth by Getty