Friday, December 20, 2013

President Obama & First Lady's Holiday Parties By The Numbers: 13,000 Guests At 30+ Events, 25,000 Cookies, 40 Chefs, And 1 Specially Built Outdoor Kitchen...

The President and Mrs. Obama greet guests at a party
Photos: The dinner buffets featured 4 crops from Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, ingredients from 8 states and the Gulf Coast, and used 10,000 pounds of cookie dough...
The White House:  The numbers for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's fifth holiday social season are like The Twelve Days of Christmas on steroids:  By the time they climb aboard Air Force One this evening heading for Christmas vacation in Hawaii, the First Couple will have entertained some 13,000 guests at parties and receptions. 

And with the presidential partying lasting 17 days rather than a dozen, the festive stats for everything else at 1600 Penn are also far higher than a mere 12 drummers drumming and 11 pipers piping, though military orchestras and citizen choral groups entertained the entire time.  The parties began on Dec. 4, and were often held twice daily, with the final party scheduled to begin at 2:00 PM on Friday.

"We have so many friends to celebrate with we had to do it twice," President Obama joked at both his Hanukkah parties, held back-to-back on Dec. 5th for about 500 guests each. 

There were also two different Congressional Holiday Balls; all 535 lawmakers from both chambers were invited, each with a plus-one, and there was a black-tie and star-studded evening for the Kennedy Center Honorees on Dec. 8.  It included an East Room reception and a late-night "supper dance" in the Cross Hall, in homage  to actress Shirley MacLaine, musicians Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and opera singer Martina Arroyo.  

Iman, her mom, & the Blue Room tree
The President and Mrs. Obama's guest list of thousands included White House staff, Secret Service personnel, the press, volunteers, and what the White House described as "Americans from across the country"--such as model Chanel Iman, who like many, many others, posted photos of her White House visit to social media, as did Houston Rockets player Omri Casspi, the first Israeli-born player in the NBA. 

Another 57,000 guests toured the White House over the same period to drink in Mrs. Obama's Gather Around decor scheme, which this year spotlights storytelling.  It includes 44 decorated Christmas trees, dazzling with thousands of hand-crafted ornaments and some 40,000 lights. 

But the tour guests didn't get the full glory of the Obamas' entertaining aesthetic, which was reserved for the party goers.  Invitations to the nighttime receptions were the most coveted, because these included a photo-op with the President and Mrs. Obama, and a glorious dinner.

The dinner buffet in the East Room
The American Grown party menu...
The Obamas' evening party menu was an expansive American-themed feast created by Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and their crews--as well as 30 extra chefs hired for the season.   

Twenty chefs worked with Comerford, while ten assisted Yosses, he said.

That's a grand total of 40 chefs a-cooking, including the full-time White House staff chefs. 

The menu had numbers running into the thousands too, of course:  Thousands of pounds of seafood and meat, thousands of pounds of pastry dough and sugar--including 10,000 pounds of cookie dough, according to Yosses. 

Ingredients were sourced from 8 different states and the Gulf Coast, as well as Mrs. Obama's famous Kitchen Garden, the White House said: 
Tomato, ginger, lemongrass, and a variety of peppers.  The year-round 1,500-square foot plot has a prodigious output, shutdown problems notwithstanding. 

The savory and sweet dishes were displayed on lavish dinner and dessert buffets set up on brocade-covered and flower-laden tables in both the East Room and the State Dining Room, which bookend the State Floor.  Dozens of uniformed butlers hovered, ready to assist.

Lamb Chops, rare
Guests were offered platters of rare roast beef, rare lamb chops, and a stunning selection of seafood, including shrimp from the Gulf Coast, smoked salmon and crab from Maine, and oysters from Fisher’s Island in New York, heaped in silver service dishes.   Hot foods were piping hot, with warmers placed on the tables.

Tiny fried latkes and the traditional accompaniments of capers, red onion, and tomatoes were served with the smoked salmon; horseradish sauce, mustards and extra dressings were also offered.

Winter Salad
As was the case last year, Chef Comerford included dishes created from recipes featured in Mrs. Obama's book American Grown:  The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.  That included the Cauliflower Mac and Cheese, Winter Greens Salad, made with pomegranates and Cajun-spiced walnuts; Green Beans and Almonds; and Sweet Potato Quick Bread, made into tiny muffins. 

The buffet tables also had a selection of cheeses, sourced from Vermont, West Virginia, Virginia and California:  Chèvre, Brie, White Cheddar, Tomme, Grayson, St. Andre, and Appalachian.  These were served with nuts, whole wheat crackers, fig paste and dried hand fruits.


The Carving Station in the East Room
There was also a separate carving station alongside the East Room buffet, where moist roast turkey and honey-baked ham were offered, sliced by chefs wielding large knives.   

The chefs on duty were the only ones allowed to use knives:  In the interest of Presidential security, guests must make do without knives, and eat their dinners with just forks and spoons.  The fact that guests are free to roam the State Floor and sit on the antique furniture in the glittering color-themed parlors--the Red, Blue, and Green Rooms--more than makes up for the no-knife rule.

The Raclette Station in the East Room
 In a first this year, there was also a Raclette Station tucked in a corner of the East Room, where a chef manned the special heating machine to warm the cow's milk cheese that is a traditional delight in Switzerland.  

The station included small sliced rounds of French bread to be topped by the rich melted cheese, as well as the traditional accompaniments of gherkins, pickled onions and tiny boiled potatoes.
 

A dessert buffet in the East Room
The dessert buffets...
The White House pastry shop offered a prodigious selection of treats in both the East  Rooms and State Dining Room, and blew through some 25,000 cookies, according to Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison.

Cookies in the shape of First Dogs Bo and Sunny the most popular--and the most likely to be pocketed by thrilled guests, who plucked them from the laden silver cookie trees, where gingerbread reindeer were also on offer. 

A cookie tree, starring Sunny and Bo cookies
Brightly colored macaroons and gingerbread snowmen were also heaped on platters.  The sugar showcase also starred peach cobbler made with Georgia peaches, pecan pie made with Texas pecans, and blueberry pie made with berries from Maine.  Cranberries from Massachusetts and maple syrup from Vermont were also used, according to the White House.  

Raspberry Yule Log
There was also cherry and apple pies, rich moist coconut cakes with marshmallow frosting, raspberry trifles, raspberry yule logs decorated with tiny snowmen, carrot cakes, chocolate cakes with mocha frosting, gingerbread cakes dripping with icing, pecan and caramel "turtles," hand crafted chocolates, and Yosses' famously rich sticky toffee pudding. 

The dessert buffet also featured pumpkin pies topped with dollops of whipped cream, which the First Lady earlier this week declared President Obama's favorite Christmas treat.  It's her favorite treat too, Mrs. Obama told
told kids during a Holiday visit to Children's National Medical Center. 

POTUS fave: Pumpkin pies on a dessert buffet
"The President loves pumpkin pie," Mrs. Obama said.  "That’s for sure his favorite treat." 

The cookie numbers don't include the 1,200 Springerle cookies used for Yosses' 300-pound Gingerbread White House, which was located beside the dessert buffet in the State Dining Room, and ground zero for many of the selfies guests posted to social media.  

The Gingerbread White House used 1,200 Springerle cookies
Six weeks in the making, and encompassing 300 years of American history, this year for the first time the edifice was atop a life-size replica of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's famous fireplace. 

American wine, beer, and the famous White House Egg Nog...
Guests were also encouraged to boost their holiday cheer at full bars in both the State Dining Room and the East Room, where thousands of flutes of sparkling white Domaine Chandon wine from California--and Hagafen 2011 Napa Valley Merlot and Don Ernesto 2012 Collage Roussanne (for Hanukkah) and 2012 Siduri Russian River Valley Pinot Noir--were poured. 

Bartenders on duty in the East Room
 Anchor Steam and Yuengling were among the beers served; for hard liquor, there was the artisan 209 Gin distilled at Pier 50 in San Francisco, and Hangar 1 Vodka distilled from grapes the same day they are picked in Alameda, Calif.

The famous White House Egg Nog was also served, in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, as was hot cider and coffee.


The outdoor kitchen under the North Portico, with 2 walk-ins
White House builds an extra outdoor kitchen for the holidays...
The White House kitchen is a fairly tiny place--just 23 x 28 feet, so an entire outdoor kitchen is built each year in order for the chefs to cook the thousands of pounds of food.  

It is located beneath a white tent on the west side of the mansion on the ground-floor level, beneath the North Portico, where the President and Mrs. Obama welcome honored guests for State Dinners--and where this year's Presidential turkey pardon took place.

Fryolators and stacks of trays in the outdoor kitchen
The rental equipment was hauled onto the White House campus beginning in mid-November, and includes 2 massive walk-in refrigerators, 4 extra cooking ovens, where very large turkeys seemed to be roasting around the clock, 3 separate fryolators, and some 18 extra cooktop burners.  Cases and cases of trans-fat-free Sysco cooking oil were stored outdoors for the fryolators.

Cooking for the presidential Hanukkah receptions required extra effort:  The indoor White House kitchen was certified kosher, with the kashering overseen by local Rabbis.  The White House released a video of the process.


The White House floral shop also had its own rental walk-in refrigerator, located by the East Wing, to keep fresh the thousands of blooms for the holiday bouquets.   Roses were the most-used bloom, according to Floral Designer Laura Dowling.  That's because they are America's National Flower, and also last a log time and come in a variety of colors, Dowling said during a Google+ Hangout devoted to the decor.

POTUS listens to the Crenshaw Elite Choir
A marathon receiving line....
The parties are delightful for those lucky enough to be invited.  But it is a grueling marathon for the President and Mrs. Obama, who stood on their feet for hours at each party in a receiving line in front of the sparkling, fir-swagged fireplace in the Diplomatic Reception Room, posing for photos with almost every party guest.  

These photos taken by staff photographers are "for personal use" and are not supposed to be "published" according to White House guidelines, though guests have interpreted this to mean posting these to social media.  The White House so far has released few official holiday photos of the President this year.  One is above, showing Mr. Obama listening to the Crenshaw Elite Choir of Los Angeles, taken on Dec. 11th.

Aides have the process of photographing guests with the President and Mrs. Obama down to a scientific dance.  Guests are told to stand here--"don't hand anything to the President"--step forward--shake hands, pose--the flashbulbs go off--and the meet & greet is over.  

All that smiling had to be exhausting for the Obamas, but they had plenty of people to thank with their invitations, and there's plenty left to do over the next three years to ensure the President's legacy, so the weeks of entertaining is perhaps a small price to pay.  Especially with the President's poll numbers currently at the lowest point in his two terms.

The East Room dinner buffet and bar
The Veep plays Presidential host for two nights....
There was a brief reprieve from the parties when President and Mrs. Obama made their whirlwind trip to South Africa for the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5th at age 95.  The two-day trip, with more time spent in the air aboard Air Force One than in Johannesburg, offered a unique opportunity for Vice President Joe Biden.  

The Veep got his first taste of what it would be like to be the Entertainer in Chief if he's elected president, should he decide to run in 2016.  Joined by his wife Dr. Jill Biden, the Vice President served as the official host for the two Congressional Holiday Balls.  

Biden with Parnes, a guest, and Dr. Biden
Biden also hosted his own holiday parties at the Naval Observatory, and made headlines for his intimate holiday cheer  with White House correspondent Amie Parnes of The Hill, who posted the photo, above, to Facebook.

As they have since he took office, the President and First Family will spend Christmas vacation in the upscale town of Kailua on Oahu.  After departing this evening at 7:00 PM, the President and First Family--and their large entourage-- are scheduled to arrive in Honolulu after midnight on Dec. 21.  


The President has no public events scheduled for the duration of his holiday, the White House has announced.

*CLICK HERE for links to all holiday posts.

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*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan except for photos at top and choir photo, by Pete Souza/White House; Biden/Parnes photo courtesy of Aime Parnes; Chanel Iman photo by @ChanelIman