Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The White House Pulls Out All The Stops For First Lady Michelle Obama's Kids' State Dinner

A series of historic firsts as the Let's Move! campaign is spotlighted with the most important social event of the summer...
The White House went big on Monday for First Lady Michelle Obama's Kids' State Dinner luncheon, a grand but youngster-friendly formal affair for 140 guests that celebrated healthy eating and cooking, and the central role children play as peer ambassadors for the Let's Move! campaign. Mrs. Obama's guests of honor were 54 junior chefs, ages 8-12, who won the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, creating "delicious" but "affordable" recipes using the Department of Agriculture's nutritional MyPlate guidelines. (Above: Mrs. Obama and her guests, watching Big Time Rush perform at the end of lunch)

The East Room event was not only the first-ever of its kind at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but also contained a series of firsts for the Obama White House. The Kids' State Dinner was meticulously orchestrated--"everything was thought out to the nth of detail," said Mrs. Obama--and mingled decades-old traditions with an airy playfulness and digital-age technology to spotlight the First Lady's signature initiative.

The First Lady sent a White House e-mail on Sunday night, inviting America to "join us" and watch a livestream of the entire event. For adult State Dinners, the White House only livestreams select portions of the proceedings, such as the President's toasts and musical performances. The festivities were Tweeted with the hashtag #KidsStateDinner (a Storify compilation is here) and Let's Move! and contest co-sponsor Epicurious.com published the kids' recipes in a downloadable digital cookbook.

"Is this not cool?" Mrs. Obama said as she welcomed the kids, who came from every state in the continental US, three US territories and the District of Columbia.

"This is one of the best events we've ever had here. Our very first Kids' State Dinner...this is so, so awesome."

As newly anointed dignitaries for Let's Move!, by the time the 34 girls and 20 boys were seated with their adult companions at tables laden with bright centerpieces that combined tomatoes, apples, citrus fruit, and flowers, they'd already had the kind of heady experience that's reserved for the global power brokers, Nobel laureates and celebrities who visit the White House for adult State Dinners. The kids, decked in finery, arrived through the Booksellers entrance in the East Wing, with its polished tan and white marble floor. They faced a scrum of media packed behind a rope-line. With camera flashbulbs popping, reporters called out to the kids to pause and chat about their recipes and their historic role as the First Lady's honorees.

"You're special. You've done some special stuff. And I'm so impressed," Mrs. Obama told the junior chefs.

She was clad in a cucumber-green summer dress complemented by a string of pearls as she stood on a bright red stage, backdropped by crepe paper streamers.

"Believe it or not, more than 1,200 kids submitted recipes for this challenge...It was a true competition," Mrs. Obama said. "It wasn't easy to choose one winner from every single state. You were the winner in your state--the whole state. You guys won! Cool!"

The winners' recipes, taste-tested by a team led by Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass, "truly stood out," Mrs. Obama said.

"You came up with dishes that were packed with nutritious, delicious ingredients; dishes that are good for you, but more importantly, they taste good, too. See? It can happen--healthy and tasty at the same time."

That's been the First Lady's message since she launched Let's Move! more than two years ago. But few things could better spotlight her advocacy for child nutrition education and healthy eating than having the talented White House chefs cook the luncheon menu with six of the winning recipes. Yummy Cabbage Sloppy Joes by winner Rori Coyne, age 12, of Kansas and Baked Zucchini Fries winner Sydney Brown, age 11, of North Carolina anchored the menu, served on the red-and-gold rimmed Ronald Reagan State china service (above).

"You'll be happy to know that you had some of the top chefs in this country working to prepare your recipes," Mrs. Obama told the kids as she introduced Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, who stood in the back of the East Room, beaming.

It was a heady honor for the pint-sized chefs, who'd also been treated to a pre-luncheon reception in the Cross Hall of the cavernous State Floor, where they were offered elaborate balloon creations--whales, rainbows, a green space alien riding a black motorcycle--and plied with tiny mocktails, fruity beverages served in mini bottles with striped paper straws.

As they waited for the start of the lunch, Kass had snagged the kids for more interviews, chatting with individual winners about their recipes and healthy eating and gardening, as part of the livestream (a video is here). He moved between the Cross Hall and the East Room, kneeling to speak to some of the tinier chefs, who barely came up to his waist. Kass, unlike the other chefs, sat at a table with 11 guests during the luncheon. (Above: Kass interviews 10-year-old Samuel Hightower of Maryland)

And just like at a real State Dinner, there was a receiving line with Mrs. Obama, too, where the kids had their photos taken with their biggest fan.

The President "crashes" the party...
The thrill factor--and the media-exposure factor--went over the top when President Obama dropped by the luncheon, making a surprise visit during the salad course--Quinoa, Black Beans and Corn, created by 11- year-old Haile Thomas from Arizona. There were squeals of excitement from the kids--and from their adult chaperones--as Mr. Obama, clad in a dark suit, strode into the East Room. (Above: The President greets guests)

"Usually I get invited to the state dinners," the President said to laughter and applause as he joined Mrs. Obama on the stage.

"So this time I just had to crash--I had to crash the party because I did not want to miss out on all the fun."

Mr. Obama was perhaps making a sly reference to the now-legendary "crash" of his very first State Dinner in honor of India, when two uninvited guests managed to make it through security and into the White House, but no-one in the room seemed to be in on that particular joke.

And it was a far more important crash: Nothing could place more importance on Mrs. Obama's national project of getting kids to eat their peas and carrots--or ensure the maximum amount of media coverage. Because unlike at the Obamas' adult State Dinners, members of the media were allowed to remain in the East Room as Mrs. Obama dined with her guests. That's another first.

Standing beside his wife, the President told the kids that he is proud of her efforts “to mobilize a movement around the country to give parents more choices and more information so that they can work with their kids to make sure their kids are healthy.”

And, he said, “I could not be prouder of you, the young people, because it's hard enough to follow a recipe and make something good to eat.”

The President reinforced the importance of the kids' special skills by telling them that he is “not a great cook.”

“I'm an OK cook. I can make a good omelet and toast,” he said, at which point Mrs. Obama chimed in that he can make chili.

“I make a very good chili, it's true,” the President agreed.

“But, look, let's face it, I don't cook that often these days. But I remember cooking and it's not always easy to make something that people like to eat. Then for you guys to actually come up with recipes that are healthy and tasty, and to do it in a way that helps to contribute to spreading the word about healthy eating among your peers--that's a really big deal.”

President Obama told the kids they looked “very sharp” before asking them not to drop any food on the historic floor because First Dog Bo “is on a diet right now and he will eat anything that he sees, especially some of the tasty meals that you guys have prepared.”

And with that, the President stepped down from the stage and made a circuit of the tightly-packed East Room, shouldering by butlers carrying plates to shake hands at every table and offer personal congratulations to his wife's new diplomatic corps.

Mrs. Obama sat at Table #8 in the center of the East Room with nine guests, including Epicurious.com Editor-in-Chief Tanya Steel, who conceived and ran the contest along with the Departments of Education and Agriculture. Also joining Mrs. Obama were Louisiana winner Michael Prados and his Grandfather Michael Prados; Alaska winner Aaron Blust and his mom Jeanne Monk; Wisconsin winner Finwe Wiedenhoeft, and her mother Kristina Wiedenhoeft; and District of Columbia winner Ilianna Gonzalez-Evans and her mother Anita Gonzalez-Evans.

Steel spoke at the luncheon, praising the First Lady, and warning the kids not to let all the media attention go to their heads. Instead, she said, they should keep up their efforts to support the Let's Move! campaign.

Mrs. Obama was introduced before her remarks by 12-year-old Marshall Reid, co-author with his mother Alex Reid of "Portion Size Me," a book about the family's journey from a reliance on junk food to a lifestyle of healthy eating and exercise.

"He is an outstanding role model, truly, for kids in this country," Mrs. Obama said.

The pint-sized chefs were the stars of the event, but there was one bona fide celebrity among the guests: 17-year-old actor Reed Alexander, who co-stars on Nickelodeon TV show iCarly, playing "Nevel Papperman." Alexander lost fifteen pounds about two years ago after changing his eating habits, he said, and his second career is now being Mrs. Obama's foremost teen spokesman. He runs his own food website, Kewlbites.com. Mrs. Obama famously guest-starred on iCarly, making her sitcom debut.

"I am 100% an ambassador for Let's Move!," Alexander said as he arrived. "It's a thrill."

Big Time Rush, the Kitchen Garden...
As the kids finished their dessert of a tiny "Strawberryanna Smoothie," from a recipe by Hawaii winner Stefani Shimomura-Sakamoto, age 11, and a "Summer Fruit Garland" by South Dakota winner Eva Farley, age 8, they had a command performance from tween hearthrobs Big Time Rush, who have a TV show of the same name, also on Nickelodeon. The foursome--Kendall Schmidt, James Maslow, Carlos Pena Jr., and Logan Henderson--entered the East Room to cheers, and high-fived the excited guests as they made their way up to the stage. (Above: BTR in action)

"They are incredible. They always come through. They’re awesome. They are energetic. They’re healthy!" Mrs. Obama said of the band of 20-somethings.

Some of the First Lady's young guests left their seats and crowded forward to kneel at her feet in front of the stage to watch as the band played three of their hits, including "Music Sounds Better With U" and "Windows Down." The guys got hugs from the First Lady and cheers from the crowd as they finished.

"At normal state dinners, people do not get to come up front," Mrs. Obama told the kids, laughing.

Another first.

The special performance wasn't the end of the day, however. As Mrs. Obama bid her new ambassadors farewell--off to do an interview with iVillage.com--Kass took over, jumping on the stage for a brief Q & A session, before leading the kids on a private tour of the First Lady's Kitchen Garden. Tomato, zucchini, mint and melons plucked from the most famous garden in America were used for the luncheon, and the kids got to see the lush crop rows located at the bottom of the South Lawn.

More firsts...
There were more firsts: Sample plates of each dish that was served were also placed on tables on the State Floor, made available to be photographed by the media. After three-plus years of covering the White House, this reporter has only previously photographed State Dinner dishes a few times, catching images of desserts in the hands of waiters delivering them to guests invited to menu preview events. But on Monday, the media was encouraged to snap away. (Above: Photojournalists capturing the sample dishes)

It is campaign season, after all, and having a lovely kid-centric event covered not only by national media but by every winner's regional media outlets in 54 different states and territories is a boon for the President's re-election effort.

And, in case there is any doubt that the Kids' State Dinner is the most important social event of the summer, there was not one but three official White House photographers on hand to capture the action, including the President's personal chronicler, chief photographer Pete Souza. An official photo of the President sampling the menu was Tuesday's all-important Photo of the Day on the White House website.

The White House also released five different videos about the luncheon, a record number both for any State Dinner and for any Let's Move! event. The videos included a behind-the-scenes look at the judging.

After hosting six State Dinners since taking office--most recently in March for British Prime Minister David Cameron--President Obama has no known plans for a seventh, thanks in part to the need to constantly be on the campaign trail. The President is outside of DC an average of three days each week--sometimes more. Today he is in Ohio, and heads to Nevada and New York on Wednesday.

If the Kids' State Dinner is the last State Dinner of the Obama Administration, it was quite a historic finish.

Above: Tuesday's White House Photo of the Day--President Obama with the White House chefs as they plate the luncheon in the Old Family Dining Room.

CLICK HERE to download the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge Cookbook [PDF].

The First Lady's remarks:

The President' remarks:

The list of winners by state.

The transcript of the First Lady's remarks
and the transcript of the President's remarks.

CLICK HERE for all posts about the Kids' State Dinner

*Photos 1, 4 & 6 by Sonya N. Hebert/White House; photo #5 and last photo by Pete Souza/White House; others by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama