Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady in a Discussion with Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, Executive Chef Chris Comerford, Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and Students from L'Academie de Cuisine

February 22, 2009

MS. ROGERS: We are so excited to have all of you here. And welcome to the White House Kitchen. I don't know that you've ever been in here. And so we're delighted to have all the students here. We're delighted to have the First Lady here on the eve of our inaugural dinner. One of the things that you may not know --

MRS. OBAMA: Our State Dinner.

MS. ROGERS: I'm sorry, our State Dinner.

MRS. OBAMA: We did that. (Laughter.)

MS. ROGERS: Our State Dinner.

MRS. OBAMA: Our Governors' Ball Dinner.

MS. ROGERS: Our Governors' Ball Dinner. So we've got representatives from most of the states that are going to be here tonight. And what you may not know is how much planning goes into a meal, and -- from the linens to the flowers. One of the things that -- you know, certainly any meal in the White House is historical, but this being the first State Dinner for President Obama and Mrs. Obama is particularly important for us.

So we've tried to celebrate not only democracy, but really try to intertwine many of the Presidents, through the selections of their china. So for one of the first times, we've mixed china. In addition to that, you'll hear more about the menu. You'll see that the chefs have selected many of the vegetables and the meats from across the country, as well as the wines. And so we are really excited about what is going to occur tonight, and particularly excited that the culinary students are here to really be able to share and interface with the staff here. Maybe one day you guys might wind up being a White House Chef. (Laughter.)

And so we've got 130 people coming tonight to eat in the State Room. And then the President and Mrs. Obama will invite them to hear the Marine Corps Band. And then of course one of the American legends, a band I really love, Earth Wind and Fire, is going to be here. (Laughter.) So with no further adieu, Mrs. Obama.

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, Desiree. Well, welcome everybody. This is an exciting day for me, for all of us. It's my first official dinner, and I've got with me Cris Comerford, the Executive Chef, as well as Bill Yosses, who is the head of our pastry division. This is so exciting, and I want to just welcome all of the students from L'Academie de Cuisine. You guys are the top students, so we are so excited to have you here. This is going to be a fun day for us. We're going to have good food, we're going to have good music, so we're very excited.

But I am also very excited about the food here at the White House, because one of the things that I was most excited about when I came in was to find that there are so many great professionals here. This is where the magic happens. No one would expect that all that comes out of these dinners happens in this little bitty space, but we have some of the best talent here.

And one of the things that we wanted to do during our time in the White House is to showcase some of this talent. And that's why we have Cris and Bill here, as well, as you can see, the rest of the crew working away to make this evening just fabulous.

I can tell you firsthand that this meal is going to be awesome, because I had an opportunity to do some tasting, along with Desiree and my mom. We had a wonderful tasting luncheon, and it was very hard to choose from so many great selections. But we're going to have just a very good meal.

So with that, I'm going to turn it over to Cris, who's going to talk a little bit about the menu, and then Bill will talk about the desserts. And again, you guys, welcome. We hope to have you back again. And feel free to ask any questions that you'd like.

Cris, take it away.

MS. COMERFORD: Thank you, Mrs. Obama. First of all, I want to welcome all of these students in our very big kitchen. (Laughter.) As you can see, like with any menu planning, there's a meticulous planning that takes place before even a Governors' Dinner takes place. And when we did our brainstorming like a couple weeks back, we took into consideration a lot of things.

And of course the first things we considered are what's seasonal and what is fresh, and of course representing the best of the American spirit. And you have to make sure -- like we tried to look at the northeastern part and see what's the best thing that they could offer at the season. And let me just go through each courses, so every course will be explained well to you.

Our first course is Chesapeake crab agnolottis, which are stuffed pasta with sunchoke puree. I heard a question earlier from one of the press. They wanted to know what sunchokes is. A sunchoke is also called Jerusalem artichokes, but they're not really artichokes; they're actually a root that's very reminiscent of potato and –- (inaudible). So it has a very -- ooh, wow, on cue -- (laughter) -- this is Tafari right here, who is one of my assistant chefs, who did just a wonderful plate that we'll be serving tonight. These are three agnolottis that are served with the sunchoke puree, a little basil oil. It's really wonderful. It's very light and airy, and of course it's Mrs. Obama's favorite. So thank you, Tafari.

And then next I'm going to talk about our main course, which is the Wagyu beef, or the -- it's actually an American-style Kobe beef. It's actually a cross-breed of the Kobe and the Angus beef, and actually this particular cattle herd is from central Nebraska. In these particular feed lots, we would, like, feed the beef like grass feeding; 90 percent of it's live, and towards the last 10 percent, it's given nice, organic whole grains, and some -- you know, just to enhance -- you know, fattening and marbling of the meat.

So as Tommy is putting together a wonderful beef on the side, I'm going to explain to you some of these wonderful carrots. I'm going to take it away from Franky, who's actually a graduate of your school. So we have one of your alumni. (Laughter.)

This is a Red Dragon carrots that is growing in a greenhouse in Huron, Ohio. So pretty much, as you can see, what connects all of our menu is really trying to use up things that are indicative of this area, but then at the same time, you know, not forgetting that we could get some things that are good -- let's say, for example, in Nebraska -- just like what the beef represents. So we try to be really very good with using the best of the local products.

And as you can see, what the guys are doing right now is just cleaning it off. And later on, this kitchen at about, like 5:00 p.m. -- when this press review is over, it's going to be so busy, trying to put together things. Everything is pretty much prepared and done here.

And this is Tommy, my Executive Sous Chef, who put together this wonderful main course. And it's of course the Wagyu beef that's served on a carrot puree. And of course we have some Nantucket sea scallops that are wonderful -- and it's also Mrs. Obama's favorite, so we have to put it in there.

MRS. OBAMA: The President loves scallops, too.

MS. COMERFORD: He loves scallops, too. We won't forget him, either.

MRS. OBAMA: Don't forget about him. (Laughter.)

MS. COMERFORD: And then for the salad tonight, I mean, you want something that's really light and very citrusy, to kind of like finish this course. It's not, you know, technically heavy, but it's really kind of like -- thank you, Sam. Sam here has put together a wonderful plate of -- you want to explain what's on this?

MR. KASS: Sure. So these are -- we'll start from the bottom up. On the bottom is watermelon radishes that are grown very close to here. They're really big and beautiful. And it's a citrus salad, so we carve our oranges and grapefruit. And then our lettuces are mixed with ice plants, which grow really well through the winter. And we have crystal lettuce, and they're very -- basically the same variety of plant, and with Sicilian pistachios that have been lightly candied, and a honey citrus vinaigrette. So it should be very tasty.

MS. COMERFORD: Thank you, Sam.

MR. KASS: You're welcome.

MS. COMERFORD: And of course you saw all of the three courses. And of course this course won't mean anything without Bill explaining -- (laughter) -- the dessert. So I'll pass it on to you.

MR. YOSSES: Thank you. Thanks. The desserts are in the same philosophy as the main courses, in that we like to use regional specialties, natural and unadulterated, whenever possible. So tonight we're going to be serving a huckleberry cobbler with caramel ice cream. It's one of the First Family's favorites.

And here's the huckleberries. They come from Idaho, so I sort of have the West Coast covered. (Laughter.) Idaho and Washington state, Oregon, they all specialize in huckleberries. As you may know, it's a wild product, it's a wild bush that grows on the mountains. They have not been able to cultivate it yet, though they tried. Mother Nature seems to want to keep those for herself.

So we are proud to serve this tonight, and happy to have you with us.

MRS. OBAMA: And we're going to have ice cream, right?

MR. YOSSES: And ice cream, as well. (Laughter.) You've got to have that, yes.

MRS. OBAMA: Homemade.

MR. YOSSES: Let me -- in the meantime, I can bring some of these pieces.

For the after-dinner guests, we don't want to forget them, so we brought a little selection of goodies for them, as well. These are maple truffles; New Orleans pralines -- they seem to be requested quite often -- (laughter); a pear layer cake; these are cheesecake lollipops; this is a huckleberry -- a little version of the huckleberry tart for the after-dinner guests; a meringue; and a raspberry tart; and a passion fruit.

So we're going to bring you some samples, and everybody can try them out.

MRS. OBAMA: Questions? Are there any questions?

Let me just say before we open it up, I just want to reiterate just how professional and gracious this staff has been. I mean, one of the delights of living here is working with everyone here who has just gone above and beyond to make this place feel like a home -- everything from Bill, you know, helping the kids make desserts with friends, to Tommy and the guys making french fries whenever you want. They can do this, but they can also make a mean batch of french fries -- (laughter) -- when you want it done.

And one of the things we want to highlight, we want the world to know, is that we've got this kind of talent base here; people who are committed not just to our family but to this country, and making the White House not just a home but a place of pride and grace for the nation to see it, for the world to see. And I am so grateful to Cris and to Bill and to the entire staff for all that they've done. This dinner is going to be phenomenal, but what makes it special is that every day it feels like home. So I want to thank them, as well.

So, you guys, any questions that you have. Feel free.

Q: Yes, could I ask one?

MRS. OBAMA: Of the students. It's the students' turn. (Laughter.) So jump in. You'll see you'll get left in the dust -- (laughter) -- if you don't ask a question. (Laughter.)

Q: Mrs. Obama, what is the typical size of the staff here? And does that vary, depending on the size of the event that is going on in the house?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, Cris, you probably have a better sense. There's the working staff in the kitchen, which, you know -- what's the --

MS. COMERFORD: It's about seven people, working staff, in the kitchen. We have two full-time pastry chefs. And of course during an event like this, we have a good support staff of like chefs from around here, from the Navy Mess, people that we've worked with before that are reputable, talented and really good.

MRS. OBAMA: So we do a bit of supplementing when it comes to the big events, but not all those people feed us every day. (Laughter.)

Q: A lot of french fries.

MRS. OBAMA: Right, right. (Laughter.)

Q: After the menus have been planned, how long -- how many days ahead do you start to really prepare everything to put together? How long does it take?

MS. COMERFORD: Pretty much, like, to prepare something, we actually -- it takes only two days. But the planning stage is the longest stage, and of course connecting with the growers, with our purveyors, and with our farmers, because for any menu to be successful, those are the key relationships that you have to build. So pretty much this whole menu is built on American relationships. It's very, very important.

MRS. OBAMA: And also, Cris and Bill are very flexible, because they set up a menu, we do the tasting, and we said, oh, we like this with that, and this with the other thing, and we really like the way this tasted. And then they went away and made all our kooky ideas make sense, from a menu perspective. So, you know, it takes a lot of talent to be able to take an ordinary taste -- because what we think is good may not work together in a meal, but they manage to make it work every single time.

Don't be afraid. (Laughter.) You're in the White House. Ask whatever you want.

MR. YOSSES: Now is your chance.

MRS. OBAMA: And these guys have -- you know, even think of the sort of professional questions that you have. You know, how do you -- one of the questions I have is how do you become Executive Chef in the White House?

Q: Are you taking interns? (Laughter.)

Q: I'm looking for a job. (Laughter.)

MS. COMERFORD: Actually, the question about are you taking interns, that would be an Admiral Rochon question. But we do actually -- you know, if there are students who are really good and talented and have the passion to really share your talent with us, I mean we're always open for part-time help in what we call a service-by-agreement. And this is when you get experience in events like this, like a state function, or let's say like, you know, celebrating a picnic outside. So we have a lot of repertoire in terms of representing American cuisines. So any time, if you're interested, just call here.

MR. YOSSES: Especially during the busy months. (Laughter.) Yes, send your resumes, because we're always looking for new people, bringing new ideas. And the students have great ideas, and they're sort of out there; they know what's being talked about and what's being served. So we'd love to hear from you.

Q: And how do you choose your full-time kitchen staff? Are these people you've worked with before, that you brought with you here, or --

MS. COMERFORD: Some people I've worked with before, and once you see a talent, you don't want to let go of it -- (laughter) -- because this -- it's really the team that will make your kitchen successful. And once you build a good kind of team into that you want, they're the backbones. I mean, without their help, I mean, all of this would be just -- it's not going to be executed --

Q: The D.C. restaurant scene has grown and become more well written about. We have a lot of the top-name chefs around in this area, either based here or they have restaurants here. How much do you partner with people like Michel Richard, or other people from the area, to increase the training and the exposure that the staff here have, in terms of the dishes you prepare?

MS. COMERFORD: Well, the thing about the chefs -- (inaudible) -- we have such good relationships with the other chefs in the area, so we kind of like, you know, chit-chat a bit, and we visit their places, and we ask questions, so, you know, trying to take some ideas from them, and share your ideas, too -- and that exchange, I mean, you grow as a chef. I mean, there's no such thing as, like, it's my secret recipe; I'm not going to share this. The best recipe is a recipe that's shared with other chefs.

MR. YOSSES: That's something that you will learn as you go on. And you'll know each other over the years, and some of your best ideas come from that interchange. And we work with -- in the sense that we talk to the chefs in Washington, D.C. And I think the only thing we like better than talking is eating -- (laughter) -- so hopefully we don't do them at the same time. (Laughter.) But we do talk with a lot of the chefs in the area, and exchange ideas.

Q: Do you try to represent different states in most -- in the foods you choose for most menus? Or is just more specifically --

MS. COMERFORD: It's not necessarily representing a lot of states, but really representing what the region or area can cover. So let's say -- I could get, like, the best sunchokes -- like now, they actually grow in Maine, although they grow in Arizona, too. But why would I, you know, go to Arizona, when I could get it closer to me? So, in that way, we reduce a lot of different aspects of traveling time and shipping. So that helps.

Q: What's a normal day like in this kitchen? Obviously you're preparing for a large event today, but just like a normal, average day in the kitchen?

MS. COMERFORD: A normal, average day, you know, somebody will open up the kitchen for breakfast and take care of the First Family, because, you know, between Sasha and Malia going to school early in the morning, we have to be up there before they kind of go to the kitchen and sneak in, and make sure everything is prepared and ready for them.

And then somebody else will come in and take care of what needs to be taken care of for lunch, because Mrs. Obama likes to have her lunch a certain way. And we have -- actually have introduced some dishes that hopefully that she will enjoy for years to come. (Laughter.)

And then, you know, like -- and then there would be another sous chef coming in to cook dinner for the First Family also. And then in between that, we have a support staff that we have to feed. We have, like, events that we have to contend with -- menu-writing, purveying, you know, staffing people. So it's not just the cooking itself. It takes a lot of different aspects.

MRS. OBAMA: Yes. I mean, the weeks are busy. I mean, it's not just meals or dinners. I mean, if we have a reception here, we've got to pass hor d'oeuvres, and the kitchen is handling that. If we have -- we had 6th and 7th graders here for a concert, and they all got cookies. Those cookies were freshly baked cookies. And Bill's shop was on top of it. And this coming week, we've got a series of things going on, so -- in addition to them making sure that the family's needs are met.

And, you know, we're like any other family. Kids have breakfast, you got lunches, dinners, and we try to maintain a consistent routine. But then there's everything else that's going on, on the State Floor, that has to be contended with that sometimes we don't even realize. You know, we walk down to the reception, and think, oh, these hor d'oeuvres are really good, where did this come from? (Laughter.) And Cris was just upstairs making an omelette. (Laughter.)

Q: Mrs. Obama, what's your -- do you have a favorite thing that, since you've moved in, that the staff here makes?

MRS. OBAMA: That I like? You know, there hasn't been anything that I don't like. There's some mean waffles and grits that are made in the morning -- (laughter) -- that have become a regular staple for some of us. I don't eat waffles every day.

The soups and salads that Cris has made for lunches -- you know, she will come up with some very interesting light, healthy salads. And, you know, being able to make a soup that tastes creamy without being creamy, because that's something that we work on -- it's like how do we keep the calories down, but keep the flavors up -- that's also the important thing about natural or local is that you get things that are really, really fresh.

I think, Cris, you made a broccoli soup the other day.

MS. COMERFORD: It was no cream.

MRS. OBAMA: It was no cream, and I ate it in my office, and one of my staff members was there, and she started scooping. She said, what is this? I said there's no cream in it. She finished it, by the way. (Laughter.)

But, you know, that's one of the things that we're talking a lot about, is that, you know, when you grow something yourself and it's close and it's local, oftentimes it tastes really good. And when you're dealing with kids, for example, you want to get them to try that carrot. Well, if it tastes like a real carrot and it's really sweet, they're going to think that it's a piece of candy. So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they're fresh and local and delicious.

So that's a lot of what I've been impressed with, is just the ability of this kitchen to take some creative things. I think we're also having a spinach tonight that is an amazing spinach. It's a cream spinach without cream. And there is no way you would eat that and not think that it wasn't full of cream and cheese. But it's -- how did you guys make that? I think Tommy may have --

MS. COMERFORD: That's Tommy's creation over there. It's just basically a sauteed spinach with olive oil and shallots. And last minute we -- we just whipped spinach puree, so it gives us a very, very light, airy -- but it's very high in vitamins, because pretty much there's not a lot of cooking done. It's just finishing it so that the vegetables are bright green, so you obtain all of the nutritional value of the spinach and even the flavors.

MRS. OBAMA: It's delicious. Sasha still didn't like it. (Laughter.) That's the other test. It's like I think they have another test, because they're feeding kids, and sometimes kids are like, it's green; that bright green color is horrible looking. (Laughter.) You know, so they have some interesting challenges just meeting the taste issues of a seven- and a ten-year-old, and making food that's healthy and delicious. We thought the creamed spinach would work for them -- (laughter) -- but it's really good.

Q: How often do you get shipments of fresh produce in on a weekly basis?

MS. COMERFORD: Of course, it depends on demand. And pretty much of course we feed our support staff here every day, and we do not get delivery, per se, because of security issues. We have purveyors and farmers and growers that we partner with, and pretty much they don't know that it's really coming directly here. But we have local farms from around the Harrisonburg area, in New Jersey, right here in Maryland, in D.C., that kind of work with us to make sure that whatever we get are secure, and at the same time pretty much naturally grown.

Q: Just to follow up on the point raised by Mrs. Obama earlier, how did you end up here?

MS. COMERFORD: Ooh. (Laughter.) Just a long story. I don't know, within the context of this press -- (laughter) -- but it's really no such -- I was working at the ANA Hotel as the chef of the fine dining room there. My friend was working in here. I wanted to see what's going on at the White House, but not really thinking that eventually this would be the door that's going to be widely open for me. So I took it. And it was good. (Laughter.)

MR. YOSSES: I had a -- I think it was a small photograph of a dessert in a magazine, and Desiree's predecessor saw it, and they were looking for a Pastry Chef at the time, so she said, would you come down and do a tasting, and, you know, go through that process? And luckily here I am. Yes, I'm very happy to be here.

MRS. OBAMA: The President calls Bill "The Crust Master" -- (laughter) -- because he's a big pie guy, and he has some of the best pies and tarts that come out of this place, and the fillings are just perfection -- which is a problem. (Laughter.)

MR. YOSSES: We have an example of one, if you would like. Speaking of crusts and pies, this is the cobbler from tonight. And students, please begin.

MRS. OBAMA: Eat away.

MR. YOSSES: Don't be shy.

MRS. OBAMA: And as Desiree said, just so that you know, this is the Truman china, and there is a limited number of them, so -- (laughter.)

Q: I believe you said you were intent on using various chinas. But do you have a favorite set of china that you use here, or --

MRS. OBAMA: I haven't gotten to the point where I have a favorite set. I mean, they're all beautiful. This set is -- it's just classic. And it's really appropriate for an important event like this. It makes the table just look luscious, in a way. It doesn't clash with the food, so it's elegant without being too complicated, so you're focused on what the dish looks like, but the plate is still there. So this was a very simple, approachable but elegant pattern. And this will probably be one that we use a lot. But there are so many beautiful patterns to choose from. We're really lucky.

Q: Are you going to come up with your own, as well?

MRS. OBAMA: I think so. I think that's part of the job. (Laughter.) How is it?

Q: Very good.

Q: The crust is beautiful.

MRS. OBAMA: Bill --

Q: Crusty.

MRS. OBAMA: The "Crust Master." And we'll have some for the press. (Laughter.) They're, like, oh. I know, it's not fair, it's right there.

Q: I'm willing to share.

MRS. OBAMA: You guys, come on in. This isn't fair.

MS. ROGERS: One correction. This one is not Truman.

MRS. OBAMA: Oh, no, it's not Truman.

MS. ROGERS: It's Wilson. This plate is Wilson.

MRS. OBAMA: Okay, thank you, everybody. I appreciate it. We appreciate you coming. Enjoy.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady in a Discussion with Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, Executive Chef Chris Comerford, Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, and Students from L'Academie de Cuisine Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320258

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