Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Alan Wong Dishes On Cooking For The Obamas

President Obama's favorite hometown chef discusses his menu for a crucial diplomatic event...and cooking at the White House...
By Marian Burros

When President Obama entertained leaders of Asia Pacific nations at the 2011 APEC conference earlier this month with a dinner at the Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu, he chose his favorite local chef for the honor of literally serving his country. Alan Wong’s eponymous restaurant, located close to the apartment complex where the President lived as a boy, gets a 28 out of a possible 30 in the Zagat guide. (Above: The President toasts his guests at the dinner)

Wong, who prepared a luau on the South Lawn for the first Congressional Picnic the President and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted in 2009, has served the First Couple and a group of their friends each Christmas since Mr. Obama was elected. Wong expects them back this year.

“The Obamas,” Wong said, “are adventurous eaters.”

Those adventurous eaters tend to dine at restaurants owned by chefs who are committed to local and organic sourcing, and Wong is no exception. He worked for Andre Soltner at New York’s famed Lutece in New York for three years, and uses French techniques with primarily organic ingredients gleaned from local farmers, and the catch of local fisher folk, to produce Hawaiian regional cooking. Like the Obamas, the first White House residents to install a beehive, Wong is a major beekeeping enthusiast. He used his own honey for the APEC menu, and has also started an “Adopt-a-Beehive” project in Honolulu. (Above: Wong harvesting pineapples)

The dinner was the diplomatic social centerpiece of a weekend designed to strengthen America's relationships in the crucial Asia Pacific region, and Wong served dishes that are Obama favorites. The entrée was Twice Cooked Soy Braised Short Ribs with Korean chili sauce, Ko Choo Jang Sauce, topped with gingered shrimps--something the President has enjoyed during his visits to Wong's restaurant. Sautéed eggplant was served to mop up the sauce.

Wong said it was OK to “call it surf and turf.” (Above: The Short Ribs)

Both White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard and Chief of Protocol Patricia Penavic Marshall were on hand to ensure all went off to perfection.

The President and First Lady's guests included President Demitry Medvedev of Russia; President Hu Jintao of China; Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her partner Tim Mathieson; President Lee Myung-bak and First Lady Kim Yoon-ok of South Korea; and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen Harper, among others. The party was held beneath a dramatic tent in the Luau Garden at the Hale Koa, which fronts Waikiki Beach.

“Security was very tight,” Wong said, noting that White House staff “usually dictates a lot of the details regarding the President and APEC Leaders dinner."

“We were notified of all the dietary restrictions ahead of time,” Wong said. “Usually they have a chef from the Navy assigned to the kitchen to oversee us and make sure everything is good to go. In addition, the State of Hawaii assigned four Board of Health inspectors, probably a directive from someone, to oversee our food preparations and service the entire time.”

The first course was a butter poached lobster tail served with a green onion sauce and Hamakua mushrooms.

Wong served the Obamas’ favorite dessert, known as The Coconut. It looks like a half coconut that has been cracked open, but it is actually a sweet trick. The secret is to blow up a balloon, coat it with chocolate and while it is wet roll it in coconut. When the chocolate hardens, the balloon is popped and removed, and coconut sorbet takes its place inside. The plate is decorated with an extravaganza of tropical fruits: Mangoes, papayas, star fruit, pineapple, and berries, served with passion fruit sauce. (Above: The Coconut)

Even though only one hour was allotted for the dinner, the pre-dinner cocktail reception took more than two hours, because there were long delays between each leader’s arrival, picture taking, and greeting from the President and First Lady. There was a security glitch: Leaders' spouses had not been properly credentialed, and this caused the delay as aides scrambled to get clearances.
Guests may not have cared, thanks to Wong's offerings. Drinks, including one non-alcoholic beverage made of ginger and honey tea were served, using the chefs’s own honey. There was also an elaborate assortment of hors d’oeuvres, including Big Island Baby Abalone with Yuzu Miso; Ho Farms Tomato with Li Hing Dressing; “Local Style” Yellowfin Ahi Poke, Hanakoa Farms Lilikoi Shots on ice; Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Kalua Pig; and Greek Sausage with Sriracha Yogurt. (Above: A long view of the Presidential dinner)

The dinner service went off without a hitch, Wong said. There was one non-food related issue: Makana, a local musician, managed to croon his own pro-Occupy Wall Street ballad while he was ostensibly entertaining the President's guests with traditional Hawaiian tunes. The move went unnoticed until the singer posted about his victory the next day on social media, complete with blurry video.

A buffet for hundreds...
While the APEC Leaders were at the s
eated Presidential dinner, the 350 other delegates were treated to a taste of Hawaii, a multi-stationed buffet, the tables manned by all the farmers who supply Wong’s restaurant. The menu was elaborate, and included Wong's signature Kalua Pig. During the weekend, Mrs. Obama toured MA’O Organic Farms in the Waianae area, and their freshly harvested vegetables were on Wong’s menu, too.

In a recent conversation Wong laughed about his experience trying to dig a traditional cooking pit in the South Lawn for the White House luau in 2009. He was attempting to do the Kalua Pig, and some of those stern-looking men who can be seen all over the White House grounds came to him and said: "You can’t dig up the lawn."

"The luau became a modified luau," Wong said. He cooked his dish without disturbing the historic dirt.

No matter the kind, “it was a once in a lifetime event so I brought as many of my staff as I could. There were 14 of us.”

The First Family will return to Hawaii in late December, after the busy White House holiday season.

Related: During the weekend in Hawaii, The First Lady hosted a farm-to-table luncheon for APEC Leaders spouses.

*Dinner photos by AP/pool; others courtesy Alan Wong