Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Behind The Scenes At President Obama's Inaugural Luncheon: Chef Shannon Shaffer Dishes The Exclusive Details

The chef was the culinary star of the 56th & 57th Presidential Inaugurations, and answers all the important questions: Did President Obama actually eat?  Did he have a food taster?  Was the menu really a whopping 3,000 calories?...
Not too many private citizens get to make both culinary and political history twice, and chef Shannon Shaffer is one of them.  He's the mastermind behind both of President Obama's Inaugural Luncheons, in 2009 and again on Jan. 21 this year.  In a debrief with Obama Foodorama, Shaffer discussed the months-long process of creating and cooking the exquisite menus enjoyed by the President and the nation's elite power brokers in the Capitol's National Statuary Hall, covering everything from the tight security protocols to the controversies surrounding this year's lunch. (Above, the President seated with First Lady Michelle Obama at the Head Table, toasting Vice President Joe Biden with Dr. Jill Biden and House Speaker John Boehner; Sen. Charles Schumer is center)

Yes, controversy:  No Obama event is spared media mania, including the party that was designed to celebrate new beginnings, hosted by the bipartisan Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC).  Shaffer, 42, got a taste of what it's like to be Beyoncé, but it didn't overshadow his experience, and he laughed as he discussed the worst of the headlines.

"It's absolutely the biggest honor of my career, and to have the opportunity to do it two times is amazing," Shaffer said.  "It's like winning the Super Bowl."

Shaffer spent most of the luncheon about twenty feet from President Obama.  In a page from the Wizard of Oz playbook, he was concealed by a blue drape hung behind the flower-laden Head Table, busily working with a crew of twelve chefs in an historic, statue-filled hallway where America's greatest leaders have paused while battling over the ideals of life, liberty and happiness.  The contemporary three-course menu opened with a Maine lobster tail with a rich New England clam chowder sauce, followed by a hickory-smoked bison tenderloin done medium rare with a reduction of wild huckleberries, accompanied by heirloom vegetables.  (Above, Shaffer sauces the bison with staff on the prep line)

The grand finale happened to be President Obama's favorite dessert, pie: Hudson Valley Apple Pie, a la mode with sour cream ice cream and a maple caramel sauce, accompanied by artisan cheese and honeycomb.

"While the theme of today's ceremony is 'Faith in America's Future,' the theme for the menu could be called 'Faith in America's food," luncheon host Sen. Charles Schumer, chair of the JCCIC, told the guests, who came from all three branches of government.  They included current and former Cabinet Secretaries, Supreme Court Justices and Members of Congress, as well as two former presidents:  Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  There was a smattering of Hollywood: Actress Kerry Washington, Singer John Legend and his fiancee model Chrissy Teigen.

As the lead in Arlington, Virginia catering company Design Cuisine, Shaffer has been cooking in the homes of Washington's most powerful people for years.  The company has done six Inaugural Luncheons in all, including the two for Mr. Obama.  The guest list of 235 (15 guests were added at the last minute, Shaffer said) contained many of Shaffer's private clients, from Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to Senators, so he wasn't the least bit nervous--just excited, since it was his second time doing the inauguration.  He left Design Cuisine's headquarters at 5:00 AM on the morning of the luncheon.

"We had a police escort down to the Capitol, got in at 6:30 and took our time to get everything set up," Shaffer said. 

Security was ultra tight at Design Cuisine ahead of the luncheon, where part of the meal was pre-cooked, including the bison, which was grilled before being finished in Statuary Hall.  FDA inspectors visited "four or five times" in the run up to the big day, Shaffer said, sampling the food, checking every detail, including health certificates for the last five years.  The names of the artisans and growers who provided ingredients for the menu were not announced by Schumer until after everything was in Shaffer's hands. 

A White House chef monitored the action...including the beets... 
At the Capitol, things were even more strict, with Secret Service agents everywhere.  Behind the curtain, Shaffer and his team worked in a mobile kitchen set up that included a regular stove, a convection oven, and rolling hot boxes.  There was a room around the corner designated for the dessert set-up, too, filled with mobile freezers and refrigerators, and coffee and tea service.  (Above, Shaffer adds the clam chowder sauce to the lobster course)

And while President Obama doesn't have "a food taster" per se, he does travel with a White House chef who monitors everything served to the Eater in Chief outside the presidential mansion.   A member of the Navy Mess staff, the White House chef had already checked the menu and ingredients, and stood with Shaffer as he worked.  And then, as is protocol, he randomly selected the luncheon plates from Shaffer's line that would be presented to both the President and First Lady.

Baby golden beets were part of a side dish that accompanied the bison, though both Obamas have publicly pronounced themselves beet haters.  Mrs. Obama has even dubbed beets her "worst nightmare," and shared her theory on beets and genetics: "People who love beets love them and people who hate beets can't stand them.  Neither the President nor I have the beet gene." (Above, The bison course with beets, center)

But the beets were not taken off the First Couple's luncheon plates, Shaffer said.

"I heard the waiter coming in to grab the President's plate, and I should've checked for the beets," Shaffer said, chuckling ruefully, but the plate was whisked away before he had a chance.  

The beets were on the menu because the White House, other than presidential food security, had nothing to do with the luncheon, Shaffer said.  He was selected by the JCCIC over the summer, when it was still unclear who would win the election.  Had GOP challenger Mitt Romney won, he would have been served the exact menu, seated at the center of the Head Table with its eye-popping arrangements of orange and pink 'Free Spirit' roses and ranunculus, being toasted by the gathering and presented with the hand-etched Lenox lead crystal vase that was gifted to President Obama.

Beets or not, President Obama ate and enjoyed his lunch, according to the waiter who served him, and according to the White House chef, who reported the detail to Shaffer, who noted that "I understand he doesn't typically eat at events."  True:  Not all the chefs who have cooked at shindigs for President Obama--even the superstars with TV shows--can actually say that America's most famous eater has actually consumed their food.

Mrs. Obama also enjoyed her meal, according to a video that went viral on the internet that showed her eating the apple pie, which also seemed to suggest the First Lady was rolling her eyes at Speaker Boehner, who sat beside her.  More accurately, she was giving a spousal eye roll to her own husband, who had apparently leaned behind his wife and cracked a joke to the Speaker. That's yet another luncheon controversy.

A 3,000+ calorie menu?  No fact checking was done.... 
The tradition of the luncheon in its current format began in 1953, and the JCCIC has been releasing recipes for the menus since the 2001 inaugural.  Shaffer's luncheon recipes were what earned him his Beyoncé-style headlines: On Inauguration Day, conservative media outlets including Fox News and The Washington Examiner screamed that Shaffer was offering a "gut-busting" 3,000+ calorie meal to the President, a presumed offense to Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! child obesity campaign.  The subject was all over the internet, lighting up Twitter and Facebook, and had a headline for two days on Drudge Report, complete with a photo of Mrs. Obama (above). 

But, said Shaffer, the blasts "didn't bother me" because the media  outlets "obviously didn't do their research."  The number used for the attention-grabbing headlines came from a dietician for CalorieCount.com, who based the figure on Shaffer's released recipes, which created multiple servings.

"If they'd done an honest calculation of each plate versus each recipe, they would not have had a calculation of 3,000 calories," Shaffer said, noting that the ice cream recipe alone produces about "a quarter gallon."

The calorie count per meal was actually closer to 1,600-1,800, Shaffer said, when served; the portion sizes were small, each plate had lots of vegetables or fruit, and bison is naturally low in fat and calories.  And of course, before the outlets ran with their stories, "no one bothered to reach out to me," Shaffer said, laughing.  

"I wasn't asked a thing about calories.  I've definitely learned a lot in the last three weeks of working--there's good and evil in every industry."

More quacky controversy...
Thanks to Schumer, who is New York's senior Senator, the menu was top-loaded with Empire State ingredients, and also starred two New York wines, a Tierce 2009 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling with the lobster and a Bedell Cellars 2009 Merlot with the bison.  But Shaffer managed to work in ingredients from other states, too. The bison was from South Dakota's Western Buffalo Company, and the huckleberries were from Oregon; the butternut squash that accompanied as a purée was grown in North Carolina, and the red potatoes used for another side, a little cake laced with horseradish, were from Pennsylvania.  The sauteed baby spinach that accompanied the Maine lobster was from California, as was the Korbel Natural, Special Inaugural Cuvée served with dessert. (Above, the dessert used Gala apples from New York, as well as cheese and honeycomb)

"While we were happy to use New York ingredients, we didn't want to get all the food from there," Shaffer said.  And: "Huckleberries are such a different and interesting product, and they're indigenous to the US, too.  We were spotlighting Americana." 

Still, there was more controversy, courtesy of The New York Times and The Washington Post, which each ran stories that focused on Sen. Schumer's insistence on New York ingredients, and his revelation that New York duck had been considered and then dismissed from the final menu.  Both pieces seemed to imply that Shaffer was incapable of actually cooking a good duck dish. 

"How can [the papers] say that we lacked culinary skill without calling or contacting us, without finding out the details?" Shaffer wondered.  "Duck was only in the running because we weren't going to serve chicken--but the chance of serving duck for two inaugurations in a row just wasn't going to happen."

Duck breast with cherry chutney starred on Shaffer's first inaugural menu for President Obama, which was free of over-blown headlines.  The 2009 luncheon paid homage to Abraham Lincoln, in keeping with the JCCIC's tradition of serving dishes honoring former presidents.  Shaffer was happy that this year he was freed from that restriction, with the JCCIC asking for a contemporary menu, and the spouses of the JCCIC members doing three different tasting sessions.

"This time we had far more control over what we could serve, we weren't tied to Abraham Lincoln--the committee enabled us to come up with the best food options that represent America today," Shaffer said.

The 2009 luncheon was also served to guests from platters, French style, while this year it was individually plated, in keeping with the push for modern.  Shaffer said he liked that part of it better, too, because arranging so much food on platters was a messy business. 

Born in Ohio and raised in Maryland, Shaffer trained at the Culinary Institute of America,  and has cooked for some of the crowned heads of Europe during their visits to Washington, including His Royal Highness Prince Charles, and the King and Queen of Sweden.  He's also cooked at the White House, invited in 2010 to join the team that cooked President Obama's State Dinner for Mexico.  (Above, the President with Mrs. Obama and Boehner...and pie)

But the inaugural luncheons are the stand-out in terms of career achievement, he said.

"I don't think there's anyone bigger than the President to cook for. It's amazing to be a part of it.  You spend twenty-odd years in a kitchen, you don't reach out for publicity, and I love to be a chef, it makes you feel proud," Shaffer said.
Tucked behind his curtain in back of the President, Shaffer only glimpsed the guest of honor as he entered Statuary Hall to a standing ovation, but the day felt complete at that moment, Shaffer said, and added that he was very proud of his team, which included 45 waiters.  Senators strolled behind the curtain after the lunch to offer compliments, and the JCCIC offered praise, too.

Like Jason Wu, who designed Mrs. Obama's ball gowns for both inaugurations, Shaffer is on a very short list of private citizens who contributed their major talents to both the 56th and 57th Inaugurations.  A bit ironically, given those high-calorie headlines, Shaffer has signed on to work with the Let's Move! campaign, as part of the Chefs Move to Schools initiative, which marries professional chefs to public schools to boost nutrition education and improve menus.  As the father of two sports-obsessed boys, Shaffer is looking forward to it.  

"I really want to give back," Shaffer said.  "What a great initiative."

According to the JCCIC, some of the New York producers who will have their items featured on the menu include Crown Maple of Dover Plains, for maple syrup; Golden Harvest Farms of Valatie, for the apples; Seaway Trail Honey, near Lake Ontario, for the seasonal, certified kosher honey and honeycomb;  and Cooperstown Cheese Company of Milford, for the artisan cheeses with dessert, Toma Celena and Jersey Girl Colby.

 CLICK HERE for links to all inauguration posts.

*Photos of Chef Shaffer by Geoff Chesman, ImageLinkPhoto for Design Cuisine; food photos by Brendan Hoffman; other photos AP/Pool