Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Executive chef Cris Comerford, second from left, works with staff at the White House to prepare a meal served during the Governors Dinner in 2011. (Pete Souza/The White House)
Executive chef Cris Comerford, second from left, works with staff at the White House to prepare a meal served during the Governors Dinner in 2011. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Chef’s recipe for success at state dinner: Mind tradition, skip the garlic Add to ...

It was while preparing dinner for former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2004 that former White House chef John Moeller noticed an unusual request. In the colourful politician’s list of dietary restrictions, he specifically noted he would not eat anything containing three staples of Italian cuisine: garlic, onions and tomatoes.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I had to read it like six times to make sure,” Mr. Moeller said in an interview.

Such dietary restrictions are just one piece of the complex puzzle of logistics involved in official meals or state dinners at the White House – and having 130 of the world’s most powerful people under one roof. By the time U.S. President Barack Obama takes his place at the state dinner in honour of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week, White House executive chef Cris Comerford and her staff will have spent months poring over every detail, developing a menu that carefully balances political sensibilities, culinary traditions and security risks.

The White House has so far been tight-lipped about what Ms. Comerford will serve Mr. Trudeau and his wife this week, but Mr. Moeller said a typical state dinner menu takes four months to prepare. Mr. Moeller worked in the White House kitchen between 1992 and 2005.

That period included the presidencies of George H.W. Bush (“loved seafood”), Bill Clinton (whose daughter, Chelsea, favoured cheap bottled syrup over pure maple syrup), and George W. Bush (who shared at least one trait with his predecessor Mr. Clinton – a love for the same chicken pot pie).

Once kitchen staff receive dietary restrictions for the guest of honour, they will begin to develop a menu that will need approval from the social secretary and the first lady.

Given the diverse range of guests, anything too avant-garde is frowned upon, Mr. Moeller said – “trying to get too cute with a lot of different layered flavours, you don’t want to do that.”

Also taken into account are the guest’s own customs: A delegation from Israel, for example, would not be served pork.

State dinner menus typically highlight local U.S. ingredients, and recent ones have featured fresh produce from first lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden.

But they may also nod at the guest of honour’s culinary traditions.

For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s dinner last April, guest chef Masaharu Morimoto, of Iron Chef fame, worked with Ms. Comerford to create a menu reflecting both Japanese and U.S. culture.

The first course, for example, was “Toro tartare and Caesar sashimi salad.”

Another approach is to show off U.S. cuisine – no matter how storied the culinary history of the guest of honour’s country.

The dinner in 2014 for French President François Hollande, for example, “celebrated the best of American cuisine” – including farmed Osetra caviar from Illinois, and Colorado dry-aged rib-eye beef.

After the menu is created, the really complicated part begins. Unlike a restaurant, which orders ingredients from a supplier, the White House kitchen has to follow strict security protocols.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Moeller said, “we had a meeting with the Secret Service and FBI … they said: ‘We have reason to believe they’re going to try to deliver something through the food network.’”

As a result, during Mr. Moeller’s time, individual plainclothes Secret Service agents, each armed with a long grocery list, did all the shopping.

The ingredients start trickling into the kitchen a few days before the state dinner. Staff work overtime to prepare, with the full-time employee count doubling to about 10. And although the dining room fits a maximum of 130 people, enough food is prepared for at least 140. If the meal is served “French-style” – where platters are passed from guest to guest – this ensures no one has to take the last portion.

And the most important rule for cooking state dinners? “You don’t want food with too much garlic in it,” Mr. Moeller said – which, in hindsight, may have been behind Mr. Berlusconi’s request. The former Italian prime minister was notorious for wanting staff to maintain minty-fresh breath.

“People are talking to each other, and hanging out,” Mr. Moeller said. “You have to be sensitive to that.”

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @annhui

Also on The Globe and Mail

A glimpse back at former Canadian prime ministers at U.S. state dinners (The Globe and Mail)

Next story


In the know

The Globe Recommends


Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular