Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Toujours Ensemble: President Obama & President Hollande Celebrate At The France State Dinner

The Presidents toast during the festivities
The gala for 352 guests paid tribute to the centuries old Franc0-American alliance with a party pavilion decorated like a Monet painting and an 'Across America' menu sourced from the White House Kitchen Garden and small farmers...
Washington, DC -  President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pulled out all the stops to honor President François Hollande of France on Tuesday night, with the seventh State Dinner of the Administration paying tribute to the centuries-old Franco-American alliance.  The formal gala lasted nearly six hours.

The festivities in the gargantuan pavilion built for the occasion on the South Lawn and decorated to recreate Paris abloom in the Spring continued until after midnight, when dignitaries bundled in heavy coats over gowns and tuxes were seen being escorted off the White House grounds by junior Social Office aides.

The Presidents, First Lady, and Stephen Colbert applaud Mary J. Blige

The most important social event of Mr. Obama's second term, the lavish party capped a whirlwind 28 hours where the two Presidents reached back to the founding of modern France and the new America, repeatedly referencing the two nations' Revolutions and their heroes--Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette--to show that in 2014 the two countries are toujours ensemble, a phrase Mr. Holland repeated again and again during his State Visit.

The celebration featured a command performance by R&B star Mary J. Blige, with the eclectic guest list of 352 including a smattering of other celebrities--Oscar-nominated actor Bradley Cooper (beloved in France and fluent in the language), comic Stephen Colbert, actresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Cicely Tyson and Mindy Kaling.

Also invited were Members of Congress and the French Parliament, global business tycoons, about two dozen major Democratic donors, top Administration officials, Governors and Mayors, and a contingent of French and American White House correspondents going through the looking glass for the evening, so to speak.

Head Table: The Guest of Honor seated between the Obamas
Mr. Hollande's recent and headline-making split from his longtime girlfriend and acting First Lady of France--officially invited to accompany her partner last November--had thrown the White House into a bout of protocol hysteria, with aides tight-lipped for weeks about how the situation would be dealt with.  But all was handled by the time the tux-clad Mr. Hollande arrived on Tuesday evening, welcomed by the Obamas during a brief Arrival Ceremony at 8:00 PM under the North Portico.

The all-important question of where to seat a stag Guest of Honor was easily solved:  Mr. Hollande, 59, spent his hours as the star of the pomp and circumstance tucked cozily between the President and Mrs. Obama at the Head Table in the center of the elaborate dinner pavilion, dubbed a "tent" by aides.  

The decor was an ethereal rendition of Monet's Water Lilies paintings, with lavender, blue and pink lighting bathing a riot of floral arrangements featuring quince branches in full bloom, irises, blue agapanthus and lilies. Tabletop centerpieces starred the French national fleur, the purple iris.  Candles in crystal holders glimmered among the gilded place settings.  The translucent chairs were topped with silk cushions.

Still, the problem of a Guest of Honor who arrives dateless for the highest diplomatic accolade any American President can bestow on a fellow world leader was still being worked out late on Monday afternoon, a Senior Administration Official admitted to reporters, when explaining that the two Presidents and Mrs. Obama would sit at a Head Table for ten.  

But by Tuesday evening, the Head Table had more than doubled in size, accommodating 21 guests including the two Presidents and Mrs. Obama as they enjoyed the four-course menu featuring the best of American cuisine and nods to French tradition.  Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, was seated on the other side of Mr. Obama.

Stephen Colbert was on Mrs. Obama's other side, no doubt offering a steady stream of witty observations as they enjoyed the dinner that included Illinois-farmed Osetra Caviar, a salad in homage to Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, a special cut of Colorado Rib Eye, chocolate cake à la mode, and hand-crafted Petits Fours, including artisan cotton candy and Vermont maple fudge, accompanied by three fine American wines.

Golden's husband, clothing designer Duro Olowu and Colbert's wife Evie Colbert were also at the Head Table, as were Rachel Robinson, widow of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, and Eliseo Medina.

The President leaning between Duro Olowu and Evie Colbert to chat
The Obamas met Medina, a labor leader and immigration activist, last December as he led a sit-in on Capitol Hill with the group Fast for Families, living in a tent pitched on the National Mall and drinking only water to protest the US House refusing to take up immigration reform legislation, a key item on Mr. Obama's legacy agenda.  

Medina's presence as a guest given an important seat reinforced the theme of the evening and Mr. Hollande's State Visit.  The Presidential duo during the day declared themselves in lockstep in pursuit of global policies in accordance with America's founding principle "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the French equivalent, the national motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Mr. Obama got cheers when he uttered the phrase with just a little stumble while addressing the hundreds of smartphone-toting and frostbitten guests invited to the South Lawn for Mr. Hollande's elaborate White House Arrival Ceremony on Tuesday morning, where the temperature was a bitter 15 degrees as the two Presidents declaimed their mutual admiration beneath wind-whipped French and US flags after a 21-cannon salute. 

"It's no exaggeration that we stand here because of each other. We owe our freedom to each other," Mr. Obama said.

"Of course, we Americans also thank our French friends for so much else, this capital city designed by L'Enfant; our Statue of Liberty, a gift from France; and something many Americans are especially grateful for: New Orleans and the French Quarter."

Hours later, at a joint press conference both again hailed the US-French alliance, saying it "has never been stronger," and declaring a united front against global terrorism, combating climate change, improving the global economy, and in general fighting together to free fellow nations from the bonds of every kind of subjugation. 

The President helped the First Lady off stage after she greeted guests
Even Mrs. Obama's exceptional ball gown for the State Dinner, designed by Venezuelan-born US designer Carolina Herrera, referenced the overarching theme:  The color of the voluminous skirt, a White House official announced, was happily titled "liberty blue."  

The gown was indeed a bit revolutionary:  For the first time at a State Dinner, Mrs. Obama wore sleeves over her famously toned arms.  Three quarter-length sleeves, to be exact, hand-sewn with beaded embroidery appliqued to lace over a blue silk faille corset.  A wide black velvet belt anchored the silk faille "liberty blue" skirt that had inverted pleats on the sides and a long train in the back.    

Mrs. Obama's ombre hair fell in loose waves over gigantic black gemstone earrings, and she looked as if she'd stepped out of an 18th-century painting where she'd been waving a flag atop smoking battlements, an iconic depiction of Lady Liberty rallying the masses.

As they offered toasts at the dinner, Mr. Obama and Mr. Hollande again declared their unbreakable bonds.  Mr. Obama spoke first, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville and President Thomas Jefferson, whose estate in Virginia he'd toured with Mr. Hollande just hours after the French leader touched down on US soil late on Monday.

"To our Friend and partner Francois Hollande, to all of our friends from France who are here today, Vive la France, God Bless America," said Mr. Obama.

"It is true that we Americans have grown to love all things French--the films, the food, the wine.  Especially the wine," Mr. Obama continued, holding a wine glass filled with water.

"But most of all, we love our French friends because we’ve stood together for our freedom for more than 200 years."

That love has included the US spying on French citizens and the internal communications of France's foreign ministry and diplomats, according to documents released by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, but no matter.   Elected in 2012, Mr. Hollande is the first French President to be honored with a State Visit since 1996, and he showed up despite the intelligence controversy.  

Last year, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff cancelled her own Obama State Dinner, outraged over the same issues Mr. Hollande ignored to be awarded his pomp and circumstance.  France's most unpopular President in the modern era basked in his stateside adulation.

Mr. Obama listened as Mr. Hollande toasted in French
Mr. Hollande opened his own toast in English, but then switched to French, delivering his remarks without a translator breaking in every few sentences.  That created an awkward interlude for Mr. Obama, who had jokingly admitted during the day that his French is limited to Bonjour and Bonsoir.  

The French-speaking guests in the pavilion laughed appreciatively from their tables as Mr. Hollande expressed his heartfelt appreciation, while Mr. Obama stood to the side and listened, his head cocked quizzically to one side.   Then the two Presidents sat down, and all action in the pavilion stopped as a translator repeated Mr. Hollande's long toast in English.   

That had to have caused minor hysterics on the sidelines of the pavilion, where the White House butlers were standing ready to whisk the first course onto the dinner tables immediately after the toasts.  State Dinners have an order of go that is executed with military precision, and the lack of simultaneous translation appeared unplanned.

"We love Americans, although we don’t always say so.  And you love the French, but you’re sometimes too shy to say so," Mr. Hollande quipped during his toast, according to his translator.  Except during the State Visit, when all shyness is put aside.  

Mr. Hollande earlier on Tuesday put that love on full display, traveling to Arlington National Cemetery to bestow his nation's highest military accolade, the Legion of Honor medal, on the World War II Unknown at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  He also made six surviving WWII veterans knights of the Legion of Honor, bestowing the medal for their service liberating France from the Nazi occupation.

"This afternoon, it was a great moment and a great honor," Hollande said during his toast. "I promise we shall never forget them."

As he closed, Mr. Hollande hailed the US-French alliance as the global anchor for keeping "a dream to change the world" alive, "that same dream made by Jefferson, Washington, Lafayette and the French revolutionaries," he said.  

"By uniting our forces, by uniting our talents, we will be able to keep the flame of hope alive...I raise my glass to the President of the United States of America and to Michelle Obama.  Long live the United States!  Long live France!"  

The guests gathered around the stage as Blige performed
As the party continued after the toasts, Mr. Hollande's tricky domestic situation again intervened in the plans for the first State Dinner in nearly two years.  In an effort to avoid providing more tabloid fodder, the Social Office mandated a no-dancing rule as the Bronx-born Blige made her White House debut, singing after dessert was served.    

The two Presidents and Mrs. Obama stood beside their chairs at the Head Table and swayed in place as the blond-haired singer, clad in a sparkling beaded gown, rocked the pavilion, including jamming through her version of the Chaka Khan classic Ain't Nobody.

The Obamas' 21-seater Head Table was the largest for any of their State Dinners to date, and also included Viacom CEO Philippe Pierre Dauman and his wife Debbie; AT&T Inc. Chair and CEO Randall Stephenson and his wife Lenise Stephenson; Margaret Russell, Editor in Chief of Architectural Digest, Robert Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and British writer and comedian Frank Skinner.

Blige sat at a different table during the dinner, accompanied by husband and record producer Kendu Isaacs during the evening that saw unlikely duos rubbing elbows. 

Bradley Cooper & girlfriend Suki Waterhouse with Sec. Kerry
Actor Bradley Cooper had a spirited exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry as girlfriend Suki Waterhouse, a British model, looked on. Cosmopolitan magazine editor Joanna Coles, who'd worried aloud to reporters on her way into the dinner that her leather-corseted gown was "too slutty," hobnobbed with Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel 

Mr. Obama's Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett chatted up producer/director J.J. Abrams, mastermind of the contemporary Star Trek franchise and set to direct the newest Star Wars films; they'd visited together earlier in the day at the White House, Jarrett noted on Twitter.  CNN honcho Jeff Zucker was also a guest, as was Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, and TESLA founder Elon Musk.   

Acclaimed chef Dan Barber, who has cooked for his hosts, arrived with his brother David Barber, his partner in their restaurants. Jason Collins, the first NBA player to come out as openly gay, sat with UN Ambassador Samantha Power.  

There were even Republicans on the guest list.  Though House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) turned down his invitation to the hottest ticket in town, former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), attended.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) were also among the lawmakers.

With the midterm elections looming next Fall, the Obamas invited more than two dozen major Democratic donors, including Irwin Jacobs, the Qualcomm Inc. founder who has given over $2 million to pro-Obama super PACs, and Jane Stetson, the Democratic National Committee's finance chair. 

VEEP and the VP
But it was possibly actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, star of HBO's White House spoof VEEP, who had the most fun.  Clad in a strapless black gown, the Emmy-winning actress spent the evening giddily joking with her dining partner, Vice President Joe Biden, whom she'd met last year when they lunched together at the White House.  

Asked her favorite part of the evening by a pool reporter let in to briefly observe the action, Louis-Dreyfus pointed to Biden: "Look who I'm sitting with!"  

"Hey stop screwin' around, she's my date!" Biden told the reporter, before bursting into laughter and saying "just kidding."

Second Course: The Winter Garden Salad, served in a terrarium bowl
The 'Across America' Menu...
Perhaps Biden had had too much of the three excellent American wines poured with Executive Chef Cris Comerford's meticulously designed four-course menu that spotlighted the best produce grown by America's farmers and "cheese artisans" while paying homage to French cuisine.   Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn was also memorialized, as it has been at every State Dinner.

Using ingredients sourced from smaller and family farmers in 13 states, the First Course was American Osetra Caviar farmed in President Obama's adopted home state, Illinois, served with Fingerling Potato Velouté (one of the "mother" sauces in French cuisine), Quail Eggs, and Crisped Chive Potatoes.  There were twelve varieties of potatoes used, grown in New York, Idaho and California.  The quail eggs were from Pennsylvania. 

The Second Course, "The Winter Garden Salad," was an homage to Mrs. Obama's showcase Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn.  Served in individual "terrarium" bowls, it included Petite Mixed Radish, Baby Carrots, Merlot Lettuce and an herbed ricotta with Red Wine Vinaigrette that used honey from the White House's own beehive. Thyme, sage and rosemary from the Kitchen Garden were used in the herbed ricotta.

Morlet “La Proportion Doree” 2011 from Napa Valley, California was poured with the First and Second Courses.   

The Main Course, Dry-aged Rib Eye Beef, arrived at the White House from a family farm in Greeley, Colorado, and was served with a Jasper Hill Farm Blue Cheese crisp.  The cheese was from Greensboro, Vermont, the artisanal end product of what the farmers dub "spoiled" Ayrshire cows.  The beef--a small, 4 1/2 ounce portion--was served with Charred Shallots, Oyster Mushrooms, and Braised Chard 

Chester-Kidder Red Blend 2009 from Columbia Valley, Washington was poured.

The edible bowl of Petits Fours presented to each table
Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses' desserts commingled French pastry tradition with what he dubbed "carnival" sweets to honor France and delight the guests.  The main dessert paid homage to Mr. Obama's home state:  The Hawaiian Chocolate-Malted Ganache was "a modern version of an all-American layer cake presented in a geometric form," the White House said, with the bittersweet chocolate from Hawaii.  It was served à la mode with vanilla ice cream from Pennsylvania, and tangerines from Florida.

A bowl of Petits Fours was presented to each table during the dessert course.  The bowl itself was edible, made of poured sugar to look like marble.  Tucked inside were gobs of Cotton Candy dusted with orange zest--yes, the White House kitchen has a mini cotton candy spinner--as well as Vermont Maple Fudge, an array of chocolates, coconut macaroons, and short bread cookies made with lavender grown in Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden.  Each bowl also had a spun-sugar red rose, and a spun sugar purple iris, the national flowers of France and the US.  
The sparkling Thibaut-Jannison “Blanc de Chardonnay” from Monticello, Virginia was served with the dessert, another homage to the centuries-old alliance.  All three of the wines were created using French techniques, or in partnership with French-trained vintners.  

It has been a tradition since the Truman Administration to pour exclusively American wines at public events.  But Mr. Hollande's fete marked the first time the White House has actually included the names of wines on a publicly released menu since 2010. 

There were more regional delights on offer as guests first arrived at the White House for cocktails at 6:30 PM, entering through the Booksellers in the East Wing.  They were then escorted to the State Floor, and offered canapes as they waited to move through a receiving line with the two Presidents and Mrs. Obama in the Blue Room, the center oval parlor.

The canapes offered used White House Kitchen Garden vegetables, pickled from last summer's harvest.  Rainbow trout from Duck Trap River in Belfast, Maine starred in one of the appetizers.  It was smoked on Maine hardwood, the White House said.

R&B star Blige took the stage in the pavilion after the dessert course, and as noted above, guests lingered at the gala until after midnight.  They rode on "old fashioned" motorized trolleys before and after the dinner to travel the distance from the White House to the dinner pavilion at the bottom of the South Lawn, located down the sloping grounds, a few acres away.

Before dinner, in the Yellow Oval Room in the Private Residence
Mr. Hollande went home to France with a big party favor to remember his even bigger honor:  Mr. Obama's special State Visit gift was a custom-made oak table memorializing the centuries-old alliance that was so much discussed.

Constructed of wood from an oak tree planted during President George Washington's lifetime at his Mount Vernon farm and estate in nearby Alexandria,Virginia, the table features a special replica of a key to the Bastille, made with iron reclaimed from the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift to the US from France, the White House said.

There will be more Franco-American love next June.  Mr. Obama announced on Tuesday that he has accepted Mr. Hollande's invitation to travel to Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  He also traveled to Normandy for the 65th anniversary in 2009, before Mr. Hollande took office.  Mr. Obama will become the first President to visit the D-Day memorial ceremonies twice during his time in office.    

Mrs. Obama thanks Chefs Yosses & Comerford & Rafanelli
Event consultant Bryan Rafanelli and the rental decor...
As he has for each State Dinner since being appointed to his post in 2011, Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard hired Bryan Rafanelli to create the State Dinner decor.  He owns the Boston-based event firm Rafanelli Events, which also has offices in the District and Palm Beach.  Mrs. Obama called Rafanelli up on stage during the dinner to thank him as she recognized the work of Chefs Comerford and Yosses to her honored guests.

Everything used for the State Dinner was rented, including the massive pavilion and all tableware, flatware, linens, etc.  Presidential State China sets are not used for events held outside the walls of the White House, and there is actually no single set large enough for 352 guests.  Many of the dinner items were trucked down to the White House from Boston and New England firms last weekend, as evidenced by the logo'd trucks parked on the South Lawn. 

Rafanelli is perhaps best known for Chelsea Clinton's "wedding of the century," but he has orchestrated events for "some of the most successful people, companies and brands in the world," his website says, including many celebrities and VIPS. 

During Administrations past, everything for State Dinners was done in house by White House staff, who even hand-sewed the table clothes and linens used.  Things are different in the modern era.  Still, White House Chief Floral Designer Laura Dowling oversaw the flowers, the White House said, and "created French-inspired bouquets to set the tone."

"Laura studied floral artistry in Paris for nearly 15 years, and her knowledge of French Floral Design is evident in the free-flowing lines of vines and flowers emanating from the classical bouquets," the White House said.  Dowling has been in her post since late 2009.

North Portico: The Obamas greet Hollande as he arrives for the gala
 The President and Mrs. Obama have previously hosted State and Official Visits for India in November 2009, Mexico in May 2010, China in January 2011, Germany in June 2011, Korea in October 2011, and the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in March 2012.  

*CLICK HERE for more details about the four-course menu and CLICK HERE for a White House video about the menu.

*The guest list.

*The White House announces the State Visit

*Updated with photos by Pete Souza/White House, Feb. 14; other photos by pool; food photos by Obama Foodorama.  Louis-Dreyfus photo courtesy of. White House video.