August 5th, 2014
06:00 AM ET
8 years ago

White House preparing for ‘state dinner times 50’

Updated 12:15 p.m. ET, 8/6/2014

Washington (CNN) — Planning and executing a White House dinner for one foreign leader is hard enough — for every perfectly arranged place setting is a sari-wearing party crasher or a recently separated French president.

The careful display of protocol will only be multiplied Tuesday when fifty African leaders — in town for an historic summit convened by President Barack Obama — arrive at the White House for a formal dinner.

Battle-tested White House staffers have been busy ensuring the menu (tomato soup, aged beef) and entertainment (Lionel Richie) align with rules of etiquette and diplomacy that dictate these kinds of events.

To wit: servers are prepared to identify who will drink wine, and who will abstain because their Islamic faith forbids it.

“It’s sort of like a state dinner times fifty,” said White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, speaking Monday in the basement kitchen of the White House as rows of cooks chopped peppers, scallions and string beans.

The vegetables will eventually turn into a four course dinner for the dozens of leaders here in Washington for Obama’s summit, meant to promote trade and investment ties between the U.S. and Africa.

Obama isn’t sitting down for any individual meetings, but aides have said he’s committed to one-on-one chats with each leader during the dinner — making the event a focal point for heads of state who want the president’s ear.

A sturdy tent has been constructed on the South Lawn for the occasion, similar to recent state dinners when guest lists inflated with political donors forced the occasion out of the State Dining Room.

The seating arrangements will be carefully plotted to ensure regional disputes don’t overshadow the evening’s intended stateliness, which will include a performance by the Oscar-, Grammy- and Golden Globe-winning Richie.

It’s nothing new for the protocol experts at the White House, who earlier this year maneuvered around potential embarrassments when French President Francois Hollande arrived for a state visit amid allegations of an affair. With neither his current girl friend nor alleged mistress in attendance, planners sat Hollande between Obama and the First Lady.

On Tuesday guests will dine on chilled tomato soup, a vegetable salad, and Wagyu beef (raised in Texas) that’s been marinated in chermoula, a garlicky herb blend that’s used in northern Africa.

“Even though it’s an American beef we want to give it an African touch,” Comerford explained, pointing to other ingredients like cinnamon, coffee and saffron that accent traditionally American dishes on the menu. Produce harvested from the White House garden will also appear.

Like every aspect of the evening, the menu was created with the array of guests in mind.

“We want to make sure that our Wagyu beef is all Halal, all of our purveyors make sure that everything we use is secure, came form a reliable sources, and the things that we use here are wholesome and good for our guests,” Comerford said.

Filed under: State Dinner • White House
soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Walt

    "... guests will dine on chilled tomato soup ..."

    Oh, I enjoy their chilled black cherry soup much more!

    August 5, 2014 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
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