Monday, February 28, 2011

Cooking for the Commander in Chief

As world leaders and celebrities streamed into the White House last month for the highly anticipated state dinner honoring China's President Hu Jintao, White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford had a discomfiting thought: "In five minutes we're going to serve 200 people. This is not the time to fail." She donned her Dolce & Gabbana bifocals, a move signaling to her staff that it's "game on," she said, though in the heat of preparation, her glasses often steam up and she'll wind up casting them aside. (She recently found them in the refrigerator.)

The importance of last month's dinner went beyond its usual social value. When Mr. Hu visited in 2006, he was invited to lunch, which the Chinese took as a slight. So, at a time when the U.S. is pressing Beijing on economic issues like the value of its currency, but relying on its help with thorny regional problems like North Korea, the pressure was on to underscore the value of the relationship by pulling out all the culinary stops.

The Chinese asked for a "quintessentially American" dinner. What does that mean to a Philippines-born, French-trained chef, married to a chef of Irish descent? To Ms. Comerford, quintessentially American "reminds you of home." Her family Thanksgiving table is an amalgam of Mayflower and Manila, some 20 dishes prepared by the couple with baking help from their 9-year-old daughter, Danielle. The chef's sweet potatoes are a presidential favorite: She roasts them with oranges and star anise.

Ms. Comerford, 47, attended the food-technology program at the University of the Philippines. She got her start in Chicago-area hotels, including the Sheraton and Hyatt Regency near O'Hare airport. In Washington, she did a stint at Le Grande Bistro in the Westin Hotel before she was recruited by former White House chef Walter Scheib III to work at the presidential residence in 1995. Laura Bush appointed her to the top job in 2005, making Ms. Comerford the first female, and the first ethnic minority, to hold the position.

Her friendly manner carries an undercurrent of toughness. When her assistant suggested her "spring rolls" are a signature dish, she shot him a look and said, "No, that's not who I am." A Cristeta Comerford meal is known for its Asian spice, colors and "extra garlic," she said. One recent afternoon, she prepared seared lamb loin on chickpea purée for an Obama family dinner, the purée's strong garlic balanced by parsley and mint. The dish was finished with orange zest and streaks of vibrant finishing oil, made by cooking light olive oil with handfuls of parsley until the oil glows a vivid green.

Her starting point for the menu for the state dinner, as with any meal, was a review of the best ingredients available locally, arrayed on one of her stainless-steel work tables. Seeing the items together helps her to draw new lines between them, creating different combinations.

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