State dinner offers new chef _ and chopsticks for the brave

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

WASHINGTON (AP) — There was a new chef and new china on the menu for Tuesday's big White House dinner for Japan — and chopsticks at the ready for guests brave enough to go there.

Guest chef Masaharu Morimoto, of TV's "Iron Chef" fame, worked with the White House culinary team to produce a state dinner that fuses American and Japanese influences.

What's that really mean? Think Caesar salad wrapped in acetate and tied up with Mizuhiki paper cord. American Wagyu beef. And cheesecake — made with tofu and soy milk.

People lucky enough to make the guest list might want to take an extra swig of Dassai sake during the pre-dinner toasts to help summon the courage to wield chopsticks while trying to look poised in designer gowns and tuxedos. No pressure, though: The place settings also included regular flatware for those wanting to play it safe in front of strangers.

Tables in the East Room were laid with the new White House china that the Obamas unveiled this week, featuring stripes of a "Kailua blue" hue inspired by the Pacific waters that are dear to the Hawaiian-born president and the Japanese as well.

As with every state dinner, it was all part of a carefully laid plan to promote friendly relations between the U.S. president and the leader of the guest country, in this case Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Even the after-dinner entertainment was aimed at bringing together the two cultures. Cast members from the film adaptation of "Jersey Boys" were performing selections from the jukebox musical, which was popular in Japan.

The White House state dinner has become an especially rare commodity under this president: This is just the eighth state dinner for Obama over more than six years in office. That's the smallest number since the six dinners that Harry Truman played host to over eight years in office, according to the White House Historical Association.

Lyndon B. Johnson crammed 54 state dinners into his five years in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan held 52 over two terms. Jimmy Carter managed 28 in four years. Among recent two-term presidents, Bill Clinton hosted 28 dinners and George W. Bush 14.

Obama has at least one more dinner in the offing, for China later in the year.

Morimoto was a natural choice as guest chef for the Obamas. His restaurant on Oahu is a favorite dining spot when the Obamas are on vacation in Hawaii. The chef tweeted a photo of himself working side-by-side with White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford in the cramped White House kitchen and called it an honor to be there.

Signs of transition in the final two years of the Obama administration were evident: After four years on the job, Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard was presiding over his final state dinner before handing off to his deputy, Deesha Dyer, a former hip-hop journalist who started out as a White House intern. Flowers for the event were handled by the in-house White House team, but head florist Laura Dowling, who departed earlier this year, has not been replaced.


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