Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: Steak Has A White House Winning Streak

A Top White House Food Story for 2011: Beef becomes the default entree for Presidential dinners. Will Barack Obama be remembered as President Obeef?...
Glorious cuts of beef were the entree for every major dinner that President Obama and First Lady Obama hosted in 2011, some with guest lists of hundreds. That stands in contrast to dinner tables across America, where beef consumption has plummeted 25% in the last thirty years, due to a combination of health and high-price concerns, according to the Department of Agriculture. Wagyus, Rib Eyes, Tenderloins, Petite Filets: The Obama dinner menus in 2011 read like a mash note to America's cattle ranchers, because the beef served at the White House is always raised domestically. (Above: The President and Mrs. Obama with their counterparts at the South Korea State Dinner, which featured Texas Wagyu Rib Eye)

Past Presidents have offered entrees ranging from buffalo to venison to duck to fish to lamb at their high-profile dinners. Not so President Obama. 2011's beefstravaganza included three State Dinners, the Governors' Dinner, the Passover Seder, the President's 50th birthday party, the Bipartisan Dinner, and the Combatant Commanders Dinner. Outside the White House, it was the same story: The President's Return State Dinner in London for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the APEC Leaders Dinner in Hawaii had beef as the entree, too.

The heady cuts of beef served at the White House are rich and juicy, and range in price, depending on where and how the cattle were raised, but all are expensive. Wagyu often sells for upwards of $150 per pound, and is prized for rich fat marbling and thus intense flavor. The White House releases few details about sourcing, except for occasionally noting locations of cattle herds, such as "local" or "Nebraska" or "Oregon."

And in between the big-deal dinners, rare roast beef was served at White House receptions, including the holiday receptions, and at picnics for thousands, in the form of burgers. The President, well known for burger runs early in his Administration, went on steak runs in 2011. (Above: White House roast beef, served on a reception buffet)

"I love steak," Mrs. Obama declared in November during a Let's Move! event at an organic vegetable farm.

Indeed. It is neither an accident nor a coincidence that steak is on a White House winning streak: It is part of the First Lady's job description to be the final decision maker for important menus, after a complicated vetting process that includes tasting sessions with her chefs and Social Office staff. Sometimes the tastings even include her mother, Mrs. Marian Robinson. Most dinner menus also included an additional course with some kind of seafood--but never as the main course.

When queried, Assistant Chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass (l) could give no reason for why the White House, America's culinary showcase, has become a high-end version of Outback Steakhouse, given Mrs. Obama's national campaign, Let's Move!, to promote healthy eating. And given that the federal 2010 Dietary Guidelines discourage high levels of red meat consumption. Kass did offer a fairly obvious observation, however.

"The White House cooks a great steak," said Kass.

Healthy eating has stolen the headlines for the most high-profile White House dinners: On publicly released menus, it was noted that the vegetables that accompanied the beef entrees were plucked from the First Lady's own backyard Kitchen Garden, credited with being the inspiration for Let's Move!. The Germany State Dinner, which starred Petite Filet, was dubbed "A Spring Harvest Dinner," while the Korea State Dinner, which starred Texas Wagyu Beef, was dubbed a "Fall Harvest Dinner."

Former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib III, who led the kitchen for two Presidents between 1994-2005, and launched current Executive Chef Cris Comerford's career at the White House, had a bit more to say about the Obama love affair with beef.

"It's counter to the healthy eating message Mrs. Obama is putting out," said Scheib.

Still, Scheib was hesitant to criticize Mrs. Obama: Social affairs don't have to be about messaging, he said. And beef has broad appeal when dinner is for hundreds of guests who may have arrived from the far points of the globe.

"Steak for better or worse is an American thing," Scheib said. "It just may be something they [the Obamas] think represents the best of American cuisine."

Scheib said he cooked everything from Arctic Char to lamb for important dinners when he led the White House Kitchen, but there was plenty of beef on his menus, though not with the Obama exclusivity. Scheib worked for President George W. Bush, after all, who is from the big beef state of Texas.

The menus...and the Obama steak runs...
The Obama State Dinners, the pinnacle of Presidential entertaining, had delirious beef choices, though it should be noted that the portion sizes are always small. For China's President Hu Jintao in January, the entree was Dry Aged Rib Eye. The dinner was dubbed "quintessentially American," and steak--with Double Stuffed Potatoes and a finish of Apple Pie--was served at the request of the Chinese Delegation, according to the East Wing. For Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in June, the entree was Petite Filet. South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak was treated to Texas Wagyu Rib Eye in October. Each dinner had more than 200 guests. (Above: The President toasts with President Hu at the China State Dinner)

Lee and Merkel both had private steak dinners with the President the evening before their State Dinners. The President and Lee dined on a traditional Korean Rib Eye, Bulgogi, prepared with "a secret marinade" at Woo Lae Oak restaurant in suburban Virginia (the beef was American, according to the restaurant). At Georgetown's 1789 restaurant, Merkel and the President talked policy over organic Beef Tenderloin from cattle raised in Virginia, accompanied by a heady Bordelaise.

Mrs. Obama, as a side note, had her own series of dinners this year at DC's BLT Steak restaurant, as part of her "incognito" jaunts around town. "Outed" as a regular when hockey star Alex Ovechkin tweeted a photo of himself with an arm wrapped around Mrs. Obama in a BLT booth last April, East Wing aides admitted the First Lady had made multiple visits to the eatery. It's just three blocks from the White House.

America's Governors are feted with a black-tie dinner every February, and in 2011 they enjoyed “Surf and Turf,” Local Black Angus Beef with a tiny portion of Blue Crab. The State Executives have always enjoyed steak at the Obama dinners: In 2010, the entree was Rib Eye Roast with Shrimp Scampi. In 2009, it was Nebraska Wagyu Beef and Nantucket Scallops.

Last May in London, the President and Mrs. Obama hosted a very formal dinner the White House dubbed the "Return State Dinner" for The Queen, held at the home of the US Ambassador. Her Majesty and a guest list that included David Beckham, Tom Hanks, and Colin Firth enjoyed Griddled Filet of Aged Highlands Beef, served with Red Wine Jus. At November's APEC Leaders Dinner in Hawaii at the Hale Koa hotel, the entree was Twice Cooked Soy Braised Short Ribs with Ko Choo Jang Sauce. It was chosen, according to chef Alan Wong, because it's President Obama's favorite entree at Wong's eponymous Honolulu restaurant. Currently in Hawaii, the President and Mrs. Obama dined at Wong's on Thursday. (Above: The President, Her Majesty, and Tom Hanks toast at the return State Dinner)

For the President's 2011 Passover Seder, a traditional beef brisket was served. Brisket was, of course, the centerpiece for the Presidential Seders in 2009 and 2010, too.

2011's most important closed-press dinners at the White House ensured beef's boffo year. At the President's landmark 50th birthday party, grilled steak and ribs were on the menu, guests who were exhausted from hours of dancing told Obama Foodorama. For the President's "Bipartisan Dinner" in April, with a guest list of Congressional leaders that included House Speaker John Boehner, and for a March dinner for the US Combatant Commanders, the White House released no official menus. But aides said that steak was served at both events.

The Obamas have hosted five State Dinners in total, and the second of the Administration, for Mexico's President Felipe Calderón in 2010, also had beef as the entree: Oregon Wagyu Beef in Oaxacan Black Mole. Only the first State Dinner, in 2009, was beef free--and that was because the honored guest, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is a pesco-vegetarian. Guests chose between a shrimp entree and a vegetarian entree.

The President and Mrs. Obama have made White House culinary history in many ways: They're the first to have a chef doubling as a Senior Policy Advisor, they're the first to have chefs who homebrew beer, the first to have a Kitchen Garden in decades, the first to ever have a beehive on the grounds...the list is now very long. Having beef as their default entree is one more entry on the Obama history list.

So how does the President like his steak?

"I'm a medium-well guy," Mr. Obama said, the very first time he cooked in public as President, at a Father's Day event in June of 2009.

His shirtsleeves rolled up, and clad in an apron embroidered with the Presidential seal, Mr. Obama hovered over a hot barbecue on the South Lawn. He was grilling steaks, of course.

CLICK HERE for all posts about the 2011 White House Year in Food.

In this video, Comerford describes the Korea State Dinner menu, which shows Texas Wagyu Beef being cooked:


*Dinner photos by Pete Souza/White House; others by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama