That’s how chef and restaurateur Mario Batali answered the question, "How long have you been preparing for this, tomorrow’s final Obama White House state dinner?" He clarified that "emotionally," he had been preparing for the dinner set to take place on October 18, 2016 his whole life, but in terms of logistics, the project was about two months in the making.
First Lady Michelle Obama hand-picked Batali, who has been a longtime supporter of her Let’s Move campaign, to be the guest chef for the administration’s 14th and final state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Mrs. Agnese Landini of Italy.
So how did it all come together?
Batali was invited to be the guest chef at tomorrow’s dinner in August. Last month, FLOTUS stopped into Batali’s NYC fine dining restaurant Babbo for a taste test. Last week, the kitchen team finalized the menu, which incorporates some of Mrs. Obama’s favorite foods, including sweet potatoes (for agnolotti with butter and sage), steak, and broccoli. The salad course is warm butternut squash with frisée and NY State Pecorino Romano. Apples for the dessert — a crostata with a thyme caramel and buttermilk sorbet — were harvested from local orchards. The menu was chosen to highlight Italian dishes that have been "ingrained in American cuisine."
Batali was instructed to use mainly American ingredients, "because that’s the White House’s message."
While wearing his signature orange Crocs, Batali discussed the four-course menu, which he is preparing now with four members of his team from NYC, White House executive chef Cris Comerford, White House executive pastry chef Susan Morrison, and about 25 additional cooks.
"There are a dozen Navy SEALs downstairs making agnolotti (the first course) right now," Batali said, "They could probably take down a foreign power, so I have faith in their ravioli-making skills."
Though Batali has cooked for upwards of 6,000 people, he admitted that doing a state dinner at the White House was "no piece of cake."
"Yes, I’m a little bit nervous," he said, noting that he’d be wearing his orange Crocs unless the White House sends him a memo about the dress code. His biggest challenge is "making sure the hot food goes out on hot plates." But he’s also concerned about what the Obamas’ children, Sasha (15) and Malia (18), think of his food. "Kids are the ones who tell you more exactly how it is, so, yes, we’ll see what they think ..."
Comerford said the First Lady requests a tasting of the menu before each state dinner, but the President never sits for a tasting prior to any official dinners, though "he does have good taste in food."
A state dinner is a formal, often black-tie event held at the White House, usually in the state dining room, and accompanies a formal state visit. The final Obama state dinner will be served al fresco in the garden, and though it is formal, it is not part of an official state visit because Prime Minister Renzi does not hold Italy's highest post; that falls to President Sergio Mattarella.
The difference between a state visit and an official visit is that a state visit honors a foreign head of state and is paid for by the government while an official visit, held in honor of a prince or princess or other important dignitary, is paid for out of private funds and does not always include a lunch or dinner. The visit by Prime Minister Renzi is considered an official visit but includes a state dinner.
Other celebrity chefs who have cooked at the Obama White House include NYC-based Marcus Samuelsson, who cooked for the India state dinner; Chicago-based Rick Bayless, who prepared Mexican food, of course; Anita Lo, who cooked for the second China dinner; and Masaharu Morimoto who headed up the Japan state dinner.
The two dozen or so kitchen staffers have to eat, too. Today, they had "grinders" on oat buns at 11:30 a.m. Batali says, "They came out of nowhere, and they had my favorite thing on them, these little pickled cherry hot peppers. How did the cooks know I love those? I think it’s the job of the White House to know exactly what you want. Maybe I can convince some of them to come work for me in New York."
Update 10/18, 7:40 a.m.: The White House has written to clarify that "Mario misspoke yesterday when he said 'NavySEALs.' While the chefs helping him are active duty Navy service members, they are chefs from the White House Navy Mess — not the elite fighting force of Navy SEALs."