Thursday, January 17, 2013

For First Lady Michelle Obama's Birthday Dinner Chefs, A Second Job As Administration Surrogates

After serving the President and Mrs. Obama on her special day, DC culinary pros serve their country, too...
UPDATE: CLICK HERE for details on the 2013 birthday dinner 
First Lady Michelle Obama celebrates her 49th birthday today, her fifth birthday since President Obama was first elected to America's highest office.  For the last four years, the President has treated his wife to a birthday dinner at a fine local restaurant.  There's no such outing listed on the President's official schedule for Thursday, and Mrs. Obama is not scheduled for public events until this weekend.  Doesn't matter:  Birthday dinners and date nights are always "off the record," and the Obamas may well paint the town this evening.  (Above: An official White House photo of Mrs. Obama celebrating a birthday, taken at a 2010 fete with staff)

In Chicago, 2012
If there is a dinner party, the chef who is lucky enough to get the Obama visit could soon be working for the Administration:  That's the case for the five chefs and chef/restaurant owners who have hosted the First Couple on Mrs. Obama's special day.  All have participated in Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign, or been named as members of the State Department's American Chef Corps--or both.  And one of the chefs helped the President raise millions for his reelection campaign.  Clearly, Mrs. Obama's dinners were memorable.  

Or she's used her birthday to woo culinary foot soldiers, because the First Couple has visited plenty of restaurants separately and together, and not everyone winds up on the White House shortlist.  The details of Mrs. Obama's past birthday dinners and the chef/owners' work with the Administration are chronicled below. 

WH photo on Mrs. Obama's birthday
Last January 17th, the President escorted Mrs. Obama to a 48th birthday dinner at BLT Steak, located just across Lafayette Square from the White House.  Both Obamas are steak lovers, and the First Lady had already made multiple visits to BLT on her own, according to a manager who revealed that she "dines with us quite regularly."  Victor Albisu, the Executive Chef, prepared the birthday meal, which was served in a candle-lit private dining room.  

Close friends accompanied the First Couple: It was a party of ten, and the fete lasted about 2 1/2 hours.  Mrs. Obama wore a black dress and pearls as she feasted on American Wagyu Top Cap, which is served in a 10 oz portion.  The President enjoyed the same entree, and side dishes were family style for the table: French Fries, Mashed Potatoes, Caramelized Brussel Sprouts with Bacon, Creamed Spinach, and Hen of the Woods Mushrooms. Appetizers ordered for the table to share were also steak: The American Wagyu Skirt Steak and 28-Day Dry Aged New York Strip.

The First Lady was presented with a Red Velvet birthday cake, which had no inscription thanks to a crumb topping on the vanilla icing.  The cake is not on BLT's menu, but was served because it's Mrs. Obama's favorite cake.  Earlier in the day, Mrs. Obama received gifts from the St. Louis Cardinals, who were visiting the White House to celebrate their 2011 World Series championship.

Chef Albisu is now a member of the American Chef Corps, along with the White House chefs and more than 40 other acclaimed chefs.  Even before that honor, he was on the Obama shortlist:  Albisu traveled to New Orleans in September of 2010 with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, for a visit to promote Gulf seafood following the BP oil spill, when the fishing industry was floundering due to Americans' food safety concerns.

On the South Lawn in 2011
On Jan. 17, 2011, the President took Mrs. Obama to celebrate her 47th birthday at The Source, a Wolfgang Puck-owned restaurant located in the same building as the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Inaugural Parade will pass on Monday. The two-hour dinner at the Asian fusion eatery was held in an upstairs private room with the blinds drawn.
Again wearing a chic black dress, Mrs. Obama and the President enjoyed what amounted to a ten-course tasting menu, prepared by Executive Chef Scott Drewno.  It included spicy tuna cones, tandoori arctic char, squares of suckling pig, and a dim sum platter that included garlic-style lobster, Kobe beef, Hunan-style eggplant, stir-fried bok choy, wild field mushrooms, and noodle dishes.   For her entree, Mrs. Obama had the wok-fired lobster with Chinese garlic sauce; the President had a prime filet with smoked onion chili sauce.  

The feast  finished with The Source’s signature 15-layer carrot cake with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on top. The Source later offered Mrs. Obama's birthday menu as a special.  

Wolfgang Puck not only cooked at the multi-million dollar fundraising dinner George Clooney hosted last May in Los Angeles for the President's re-election campaign (and for a couple other fundraisers), but a few months later he joined Sam Kass for a massive 'Let's Move! California' event.  That was also in LA, and Puck spoke winningly to a crowd of hundreds about the importance of healthy eating, and gave a cooking demonstration.  Chef Drewno was honored with an appointment to the American Chef Corps.

At the Capitol in 2010
On Jan. 16, 2010 for her first official birthday as First Lady, the President feted Mrs. Obama with a surprise party at Restaurant Nora on Jan. 16, the eve of the big day. The First Lady, clad again in black, was surprised as she marked her 46th at America's first certified-organic restaurant.  The party lasted close to four hours. 

Mrs. Obama dined on a salad of mixed greens (specially prepared by Chef Benjamin Lambert and not on the menu), and ordered rack of lamb with preserved lemon and mint salad, accompanied by chick pea puree, with green beans and sun-dried tomatoes.  The President dined on pan-seared Maine lobster and saffron risotto.  Mrs. Obama had white wine to begin--a glass of 2008 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc--and red wine with the entree. 

Her birthday dessert was a bittersweet molten chocolate cake with cappuccino ice cream. Guests included Mrs. Obama's mother, Mrs. Marian Robinson, Attorney General Eric Holder and his wife, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, and close friends.  Earlier in the day, Mrs. Obama had a small White House celebration with her East Wing staff.

Five months after the dinner, chef/owner Nora Pouillon was on the South Lawn with hundreds of other chefs as Mrs. Obama unveiled the Chefs Move to Schools project.  She later joined the White House chefs for Let's Move! events at DC-area schools.

In the Map Room in 2009
On Jan. 17, 2009, three days before President Obama's first inauguration, the First Couple made their first fine dining excursion in DC, celebrating Mrs. Obama's birthday at Equinox restaurant with eleven guests.  Critically acclaimed and known for its local and sustainable sourcing, Equinox is located a stone's throw from the White House. 

At the birthday dinner, Mrs. Obama, again clad in black with pearls, dined on the Rappahannock oysters with apple and celery root mousseline, followed by strip loin with thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes and wilted spinach -- as did the President. The birthday dessert was vanilla ice cream with caramelized bananas.

Mrs. Obama made another visit to Equinox in March of 2011 for a luncheon with the First Lady of Mexico

Chef Gray was invited to speak at Mrs. Obama's launch of Chefs Move to Schools, the only professional chef to do so, and he has been an activist in her campaign; he was crucial to creating the Chefs Move project, and has been a guest chef at the White House.  He's also now a member of the American Chef Corps.   

For the inauguration celebration, Gray has created a Sunday Brunch menu honoring the President and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., using their recipes and recipes they've inspired.

Mrs. Obama would no doubt approve.   

*Top photo by Samantha Appleton/White House; all others are details of photos by Pete Souza/White House