NATIONAL NEWS

Female White House chef duo has dished up culinary diplomacy at state dinners for nearly a decade

May 21, 2024, 9:32 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A house-cured smoked salmon, red grapefruit, avocado and cucumber starter. Dry-aged rib eye beef in a sesame sabayon sauce. Salted caramel pistachio cake under a layer of matcha ganache.

While President Joe Biden and his guest of honor at a White House state dinner chew over foreign policy, the female chef duo of Kenya’s president on Thursday night.

Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Morrison, the executive pastry chef, are the first women to hold those posts, forming a duo that has tantalized the taste buds of guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with their culinary creations for nearly a decade. Comerford is also the first person of color to be executive chef.

“Both are just exceptional examples of success in their field,” said Bill Yosses, who was the executive pastry chef for seven years before his departure in 2014 cleared the way for Morrison to be promoted. “They excel at what they do.”

Comerford and Morrison get to do it again Thursday when Biden and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, host the administration’s sixth state dinner, for Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife, Rachel. It will be the first such honor for an African head of state since 2008 and the first for Kenya since 2003.

The chefs will serve a three-course meal of chilled heirloom tomato soup and a “best of both worlds” main course of smoked beef short ribs and butter-poached lobster, Comerford said. Dessert is a homemade white chocolate basket of raspberries, peaches and other fruit.

A lavish state dinner is a tool of U.S. diplomacy, a high honor reserved for America’s longstanding and closest allies. In the case of Kenya, Biden wants to elevate a relationship that he sees as critical to security in Africa and far beyond.

State dinner planning is done by the first lady’s staff and the White House social office, and starts months in advance. Ideas are kicked around before the chefs propose a few different menus. The meals are prepared, plated as they would be served and tasted by the social secretary and the first lady, who makes the final call on what will be served.

The menus change, but the overarching goal has stayed the same.

“We’re trying to showcase American food, American regions, American farmers,” while incorporating small tributes to the guest of honor, Yosses said. “It would be rare that we would really try to imitate something from the guest’s country.”

Ingredients for April’s state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife, Yuko, came from California, Maryland, Oregon and Ohio. The wines were from Oregon and Washington state.

At the media preview for that glitzy event, Comerford explained that the diets of the Bidens and the visiting dignitaries are factored into the preparations, along with those of other guests.

“When we formulate and we create the state dinner menu, we take into consideration all the principals and most of our guests,” she said. “We also take into consideration the season because this is the perfect time for some beautiful bounties right now, with the spring coming up, with all the morels and the mushrooms, and Susie’s cherries and all the stuff she has on her plate.”

The chefs contact their regular purveyors to find out what’s in season, and go from there.

The salmon appetizer served in April was inspired by the California roll, which Comerford said was invented by a Japanese chef.

Morrison’s dessert highlighted Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the United States, many of which are planted in Washington, and its matcha tea. She decorated the pistachio cake with sugary mini cherry blossoms.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of the cherry blossoms that are here on the Tidal Basin right here to our dessert in order for everyone to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we enjoy every year,” she said.

Serving dinner to hundreds of guests at once comes down to timing. Thursday’s event will be held in an expansive pavilion put up on the South Grounds of the White House.

Sam Kass, who was an assistant chef during President Barack Obama’s administration, said tradition holds that the president is the first one served and that plates are cleared away when he is finished eating.

“You have to have a service that is so efficient and quick to get those plates out so that the last table has a chance to eat,” he said.

Comerford, 61, sharpened her culinary skills while working at hotels in Chicago and restaurants in Washington before the White House brought her on in 1995 as an assistant chef. A naturalized U.S. citizen and a native of the Philippines, she was named executive chef in 2005. Her responsibilities include designing and executing menus for state dinners, social events, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons.

Morrison, 57, started at the executive mansion as a contract pastry employee in 1995 while she was working at a hotel in northern Virginia. She was named an assistant pastry chef in 2002 and became the executive pastry chef in November 2014 — just in time to sweat over the details of that year’s gingerbread White House for the holiday season.

The pair has worked together at the White House for nearly 30 years.

Yosses recalled at least one instance where the honoree’s wishes dictated the menu selections.

In 2015, China’s Xi Jinping wanted a very American menu, “which I think was a polite way for him to say that he didn’t think we could do Chinese food very well,” Yosses said.

The Chinese leader was served butter-poached Maine lobster and grilled Colorado lamb.

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AP News Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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