Hail to the chef

Sunday, January 22, 2006
A table setting topped by the program and menu for the state dinner held by President Bush for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was seen in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington in this May 19, 2003, file photo. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Dinner at the White House means guests in black tie, an invitation-only, A-list crowd and a four-course meal, elaborate in preparation and elegant in presentation. Those are the dos.

But there are also don'ts. No heavy garlic. Scant gravy. Absolutely no flaming desserts.

"On one Christmas a lady caught on fire," said Roland Mesnier, a former White House pastry chef who banned such fiery confections after the 2002 incident. "She was wearing a fox shawl around her neck, she leaned over on the dessert table and, whoops, she was on fire.

"So no flambˇ at the White House," he said. The guest came to no harm.

Like any good host or hostess, the White House takes note of the cultural, dietary and religious sensibilities of its guests and serves accordingly. Beyond that, White House chefs past and present avoid dishes that, while fine in other settings, could offend a packed dining room.

Strong-smelling fish is out. Serving bread at all is debatable.

"You also don't want to serve food that is dripping with sauces" to guests "dressed to the nines," Mesnier said. "You want to think about any possible accident that could happen."

Too much sauce could drip and ruin fine clothing. But bread?

Mesnier, who retired in 2004 after 25 years of dessert-making for five presidents, said bread was frowned on in his time because the crumbs were unwanted.

Bakers can relax, though. Susan Whitson, spokeswoman for first lady Laura Bush, said there is no bread ban at the White House.

"Sometimes we serve bread and sometimes we don't," she said by e-mail. "Sometimes we don't use bread plates on the tables because there isn't space for them. Crumbs are not an issue."

Each place setting has a dinner plate with multiple knives and forks on each side, and four stemmed glasses -- for red wine, white wine, water and champagne. There is a place card, the menu and a floral centerpiece surrounded by candles.

What the current White House serves for dinner is largely the choice of Laura Bush, the chef and the social secretary, who collaborate to develop a menu based on the first lady's ideas.

But guests are having their say, too.

Not only do they R.S.V.P. to say they are coming, some go as far as to specify their eating habits.

Walter Scheib III, who served Presidents Clinton and Bush as head chef until last year, said the kitchen would prepare up to 50 alternative meals after the dinner acceptances came flooding in.

"People would say, 'I don't eat this or I don't eat that' or 'I'd like this,"' Scheib said. "As in any house, you do your best to accommodate."

Whitson said a "very low percentage" of guests, 1 percent to 2 percent, make such requests and most are about a food allergy "rather than a matter of personal preference, like a low-fat meal."

"We always accommodate it," she said.

Last July, at an official dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, vegetarian meals were served to guests who do not eat fish, Whitson said. Pan-roasted halibut, accompanied by ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachios and currants, and herbed summer vegetables made up the main course.

Letitia Baldrige, social secretary to the Kennedys, frowns on such accommodations. Guests who make demands of the White House show how spoiled and self-centered they are, she said.

"The White House kitchen cannot be a bunch of short-order cooks for everybody who comes," Baldrige said in an interview, adding that guests should keep quiet and push unwanted food aside.

It seems dinner parties were simpler during the days of Camelot.

"The only thing we worried about was not offending the Muslims and the Jews," Baldrige said. Also, guests did not dare call ahead with do's and don'ts. "It wasn't polite," she said.

The need for meal substitutions goes beyond dinner, even.

Mesnier, who discussed his no-no's in an Associated Press interview and the fiery dessert episode in an Internet chat organized by the White House in 2004, said he also took into consideration the different allergies and food preferences of guests when whipping up an after-dinner treat.

"Instead of creating a special dessert just for the person who has an allergy, I was more inclined to make a dessert that everybody could enjoy," the Frenchman said during the online chat. "I didn't want to make the person who had the allergy feel different."

But Baldrige, who is regarded as an authority on etiquette, said people have "just become a bunch of complainers" concerned too much with their own interests.

"I have never been in a restaurant or a home where vegetarians couldn't make a good meal on the vegetables and other dishes served at a meat-entree dinner," she said by e-mail. "When my vegetarian friends receive personal dinner invitations, they 'make do' with what is served them, and wouldn't dream of upsetting the kitchen with special requests."

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