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Michelle Obama's first White House state dinner: Behind the scenes

February 22, 2009 |  4:52 pm

Michelle Obama organizes her first state dinner 2-22-09 as First Lady with White House chef Cristeta Comerford in her cramped office, the White House kitchen

(SECOND UPDATE: Another Ticket State Dinner item has been posted, including the scene and President Obama's remarks and first White House toast. It is available by clicking here.)

(UPDATE: Additional material from the state dinner preview has been added below.)

While you were watching those celebrities in borrowed clothing walk down the red carpet to not win an Academy Award and hoping to catch a glimpse of what Mickey Rourke did with all that unwashed hair today, newly-minted First Lady Michelle Obama was busily organizing her first state dinner in the White House.

Virtually all the nation's governors, and some congressional VIPs, were coming for dinner.

As part of her community outreach, Mrs. Obama is opening much of the once behind-the-scenes life at the White House. Today was a prime opportunity for her. So we're printing an abridged version of the media pool report on the pre-dinner events written by Lynn Sweet, wily, wise veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Pool Report:

Event: White House kitchen preview with chefs and students before the Obama White House First State Dinner Sunday afternoon.

A memo from the East Wing with the menu, settings, flowers, china,  glassware and silver flatware is at the end or this report.

Some Obama Personal Details:

If you did not know:

“The president loves scallops,” according to the First Lady.

The White House Huckleberry Cobbler is “one of the First Family’s favorites.”

Mrs. Obama is fond of a White House soup that “tastes creamy without being creamy” and the creamed spinach that has no cream.

The creamed spinach is “delicious,” said White House chief Cristeta Comerford.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Obama said, “Sasha still didn’t like it.” She added that the White House kitchen staff  faces a “test” because the staff has to deal with feeding youngsters. “…..And sometimes kids are like, ‘it’s green,’” Mrs. Obama said.

*Mrs. Obama is contemplating coming up with her own china. “I think so, I think that’s, that’s part of the job,” she said.

Background

Many of the nation’s governors are in Washington for the National Governors Association winter meeting and, as always the White House invited them to a black tie state dinner on Sunday evening.  There are 130 guests expected for the dinner and dancing in the State Room on Sunday night.

Music will be performed by the Marine Corps Band and a group White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers said she “really loves,” Earth Wind and Fire.

The Dinner Preview

In the afternoon before the dinner, Michelle Obama, Rogers, White House Chef Cristeta Comerford and White House Pastry Chef William Yosses previewed the menu in the White House kitchen. The chefs stress the American ingredients in the dinner menu.

As part of Mrs. Obama’s plan to open up the White House to the community, six students....

...attended the briefing.  Each course was displayed on White House china--Woodrow Wilson State Service, 1918. The students were each served a plate with a desert at the end.

Mrs. Obama, implying they should be careful with the china, wisecracked of the plates, “there is a limited number of them.” (She referred to the plates as Truman and later corrected herself, saying, I don’t have my china down yet.”) 

The students had a chance to ask questions—Mrs. Obama had to coax the group a few times to to ask away.

The students were from the culinary and pastry programs of  L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, a Washington suburb. All six were women. The founder and director of the school, Francois Marie-Jacques Dionot, said he picked the top-ranked students for the event.

Said Rogers,  “Maybe one day you guys might wind up being a White House chef.”

The scene: If you have seen a big catering kitchen in a hotel—well, this is not the White House kitchen. It is fairly small and compact. The cabinets and counters are stainless steel. A few dozen well-used pots and pans and other cooking utensils are hanging from a stainless steel rack. There is a big mixer on the floor. A stove. What looks like a cappuccino machine on one side. A boom box is on a shelf.

The students were in street clothes, many taking pictures as the different courses were brought out.

The staff of about 10 were in their kitchen whites. Their names were sewn on their jackets. The newest assistant chef, Chicago transplant Sam Kass, who was the Obama’s personal chef, briefed the group on the winter citrus salad. He put together a sampler plate with watermelon radishes grown close to Washington; oranges and grapefruit. The lettuce was a mix of plants that “grow well in winter,” he said.

“This is where the magic happens. No one would expect that all that comes out of these dinners happens in this little bitty space,” Mrs. Obama said.

She said one of her goals with this event was to “showcase some of this talent” working in  the White House kitchen.

“I can tell you firsthand that this meal is going to be awesome, because I had an opportunity to do some tasting along with Desiree and my mom, we had a wonderful tasting luncheon,” Mrs. Obama said.

Participants in State Dinner Preview Event

L’Academie de Cuisine Students chosen to participate in today’s event rank in the top of their class: Patricia Alonso, Erika Anderson, Kaitlin Giuffre, Carolyn Jenkins, Margaret Long and Meaghan McDonnell.First Lady Laura Bush confers with new First Lady Michelle Obama about life in the White House after the 11-08 election

L’Academie de Cuisine Staff:Francois Marie-Jacques Dionot (Founder and Director),Catherine M. Rhine (Instructor).

Menu for Governors’ State Dinner

Chesapeake Crab Agnolottis with Roasted Sunchokes

Wine pairing: Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (California)

Wagyu Beef and Nantucket Scallops with Glazed Red Carrots, Portobello Mushroom and Creamed Spinach

Wine pairing: Archery Summit Pinot Noir “Estate” 2004 (Oregon)

Winter Citrus Salad with Pistachios and Lemon Honey Vinaigrette

Huckleberry Cobbler with Caramel Ice Cream

Wine pairing: Black Star Famrs “A Capella” Riesling Ice Wine 2007 (Michigan)

Setting Details for Governors’ Dinner

Centerpieces: The three types of gilded metal stands, six in bronze and two in silver, feature the classical female figures known as the Three Graces, the Greek goddesses who presided over banquets, dances, and all other pleasurable social events, and brought joy and goodwill to both gods and mortals.

Set of Three Baskets: The most historic are the gilded bronze baskets -- one taller and a shorter pair - purchased in France in 1817 by the U.S. Government for the refurnishing of the post-fire White House under President James Monroe. They are attributed to Denière et Matelin, Paris.

Set of Three Baskets: A second set of gilded bronze baskets - the taller example on the north wall pier20table and the shorter pair on the tables - are contemporary French pieces, c.1815-1820, with the female figures having wings.  They once belonged to Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who rose to prominence under the patronage of President Theodore Roosevelt.  They were a gift to the White in 1973 from a descendent.

Pair of Dessert Stands: The pair of shorter stands in gilded silver were made in London, c.1808-1813, by Paul Storr, the most famous silversmith of Regency England.  These stands are from the Biddle vermeil collection received by the White House in 1957.

Flowers: Flower bouquets of deep reds and burgundies will be set including roses, black callas, orchids, tulips and gardenia foliage.

China: Woodrow Wilson State Service: In 1918 the White House acquired the first service of state china made in the United States. Lenox, Inc., Trenton, New Jersey, made a set with a cream-colored rim with a gilt band called "stars and stripes" and a gilt Presidential Coat-of-Arms.

World’s Fair Service: At the close of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, the tableware used at the United States Pavilion was transferred to the White House for continued use. Decorated with the Great Seal of the United States, the service plates were made by Lenox, Inc., Trenton, New Jersey, while the other types of plates were made by Theodore Haviland of New York.

State Department Service: The “stars and stripes” border used by Lenox on20the 1918 Woodrow Wilson White House service has been repeated on china commissioned from several manufacturers for use in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State.  This assembled service is decorated with the Great Seal of the United States, an emblem for which the State Department keeps the official dies.

Glassware: Kennedy Glass Service: a simple pattern known as “President's House” was first purchased for the White House in 1961 from the Morgantown Glass Works of Morgantown, West Virginia.  Since that time, additional glass has been provided by the Fostoria Glass Co. and Lenox.

World’s Fair Glass Service: At the close of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, the tableware used at the United States Pavilion was transferred to the White House for continued use. An Art Deco service of glassware had been made by Libbey Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio using its “Embassy” pattern, with flat reeded stems, engraved with an eagle surmounted by stars.

Silver Flatware: “King Charles” Flatware: In 1974, the White House acquired 130 place settings of the well-known Providence manufacturer, Gorham, Inc., then called its “King Charles” pattern (patented in 1893 as “King George”).  This flatware is of a rather elaborate 18th-century pattern, variations of which have been made by several companies under the “King” designation.  In 2006, Lenox, Inc., then owner of the Gorham molds, was commissioned to make another 170 place settings for the White House.

(UPDATED ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Typical size of staff? Seven working staff in the kitchen; two full time pastry chefs.

Chef Comerford said for big events, she borrows staff. Chefs from around here, from the Navy mess “that are reputable, talented and really good.”

*After the menus been planned how many days ahead Do you start preparing? Comerford said, “It takes only two days, but the planning stage is the longest stage, and of course connecting with the growers, the purveyors…for any menu to be successful those are the key relationships….So pretty much this whole menu is built on American relationships.”

After the tasting meal, Mrs. Obama said they wanted to mix and match foods they sampled and she said of the White House chefs,  “They made all our kooky ideas make sense.”

After a lull in the questions, Mrs. Obama prodded the students. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, suggesting they “sort of think of the professional questions that you have, you know how do you.. One of the questions that I have is ‘how do you become executive chef? That prompted one of the shy students to ask, “Are you taking interns?”

Chef Comerford said they are open for part time help. (Apply to White House Usher’s office).

*The D.C. restaurant scene. How much do you partner….with people in the area? Comerford said relations with other chefs in the area are cordial, “we kind of like, chitchat a bit and we visit their places and we ask questions, so, trying to like take you know, like some ideas20from them…share your ideas, that exchange, I mean, you grow as a chef.”

*Normal day? Chef Comerford  said, “somebody will open up the kitchen to cook breakfast and take care of the First Family…Sasha and Malia are going to school early in the morning. We have to be up there before they kind of go to the kitchen…..Somebody else will come in and take care of what needs to be taken care of for  lunch because Mrs. Obama likes to have her lunch a certain way and we have actually introduced some dishes you will enjoy for years to come. And then there will be another … chef to come in to cook dinner….in between that we have a support staff that we have to feed; we have events that we have to contend with, menu writing, purveying, you know staffing people, it’s not just the cooking itself.”

*Mrs. Obama, what is your favorite thing that staff makes? “There’s some mean waffles and grits that are made in the morning that’s become a regular staple for some of us; I don’t eat waffles every day…the soups and salads that Chris has made for lunchs….some light, healthy salads and, you know being able to make a soup that tastes creamy without being creamy because that is something that we work on, ‘how do we keep the calories down but keep the flavors up.”’

She went on to praise the creamed spinach on the menu tonight, “that is an amazing spinach, a creamed spinach without cream. There is no way you would eat that and not think that it wasn’t filled with cream and cheese.”

Comerford said this is how she does it ….Sauteed spinach, olive oil and shallots last minute whipped into a puree…keeps all the nutritional value in it….“It’s delicious,” Comerford said.

Added Mrs. Obama, “Sasha still didn't like it.”

*Local produce? Chef Comerford: They partner with local growers, farmer and purveyors. For security reasons,  vendors “don’t know that it is going directly here.”  From Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland.

As the event closed, the students, as mentioned in first pool report, were served desert.

Mrs. Obama said the press should take a taste. Your pooler, in the line of duty, sampled two pieces of dark chocolate with carmel inside. Very tasty. Mrs. Obama posed for pictures with the students.

-- Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times

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Photo credits: Ron Edmonds / Associated Press (White House chef Cristeta Comerford in her cramped office, the White House kitchen);  Joyce Boghosian / The White House (First Lady Laura Bush confers with Michelle Obama in the family living quarters after the November 2008 election).

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