Skip to main content

Secret behind 'Mexican' state dinner at the White House

By Juan Andrés Muñoz, CNNMéxico
  • Rick Bayless was chosen to cook Mexican food for the president of Mexico
  • The Obamas were familiar with the chef after dining at his Chicago restaurants
  • Bayless: Mexico's first lady said several times she loved the cerviche verde

(CNNMéxico) -- Mexican food was the great star of the second state dinner held in the Obama administration.

In honor of President Felipe Calderon, the menu was Mexican dishes made from iconic American ingredients with herbs and vegetables that were grown in the White House gardens.

Who would dare surprise a Mexican president with Mexican dishes in Washington?

The chosen chef was Rick Bayless, one of the great gurus of Mexican cuisine in the United States, who has popularized his dishes through his TV program, six cookbooks and, of course, his three restaurants: the casual Frontera Grill, the four-star Topolobampo and the newly opened Xoco.

His restaurants are in Chicago, and the Obamas were regular patrons before the couple moved to Washington.

Still, the James Beard Award-winning chef was surprised to be invited to their new home.

"I could hardly believe it. I kept going back to see if I actually had been invited or if it was a mistake ... no, it is an amazing honor to be invited to cook at the White House," Bayless said in an interview with CNNMéxico.

The evening's dishes were carefully chosen after consulting with first lady Michelle Obama and executive White House chef Cristeta Comerford.

"We started with menus that we knew that the president and first lady had enjoyed, things that they have enjoyed they were at our restaurants. And we put two or three different menus because I didn't know how they did the service at the White House, and you have to make the menu tailored to the way the kitchen is set up. You can't do all things in all kitchens," Bayless explained.

"We learned that we couldn't serve soup because we knew that the first lady really enjoyed the tortilla soup, the soup that we do, but she said it was too hard to serve for 200 because the service is really fast."

And finally, what was the menu?

The guests began their dinner with a Jicama salad with oranges, grapefruit and pineapple citrus vinaigrette served with a Chardonnay Ulisis Valdez Russian River 2007.

This was followed by an herb green ceviche of Hawaiian opah (fish) with sesame-cilantro crackers.

The main dish was Oregon Wagyu beef in Oaxacan black mole accompanied by black bean tamalon and grilled green beans, paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon Herrera Selección Rebecca 2006.

Finally, dessert was chocolate-cajeta tart with toasted homemade marshmallows, graham cracker crumble and goat cheese ice cream accompanied by a Mumm Napa Carlos Santana Brut champagne.

"The whole idea about a state dinner -- and people don't usually understand this -- but when you are hosting a dignatary from a foreign country it is not common to serve food from their country. It is common to serve them the best of American cuisine, because you are hosting them," Bayless said.

"It's huge departure for Obama administration to have served food of Mexico, but they did it because of my work, I have really brought the true flavors from Mexico to the United States... however, we did feature a number of fabulous American ingredients like the opah from Hawaii and the Wagyu from Oregon."

"I loved it... it was such a great menu that we are going to put that menu as one of our tasting menus in Topolobampo in a couple of weeks", said Bayless, who was born in Oklahoma City but lived in Mexico from 1980 to 1986.

Of all the praises chef Bayless received for the dinner, two made him particularly happy. One, from Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala, "who said that she loved the ceviche verde that we did, she told me that two or three times that she loved that ceviche." The other, from President Calderon, "who said that it was one of the best mole negro he had ever had," said Bayless.

The White House blogged about the dinner

That mole was precisely the most complicated part of the dinner, not only because it takes more than 20 ingredients and seven hours to make, but also for another reason.

"I didn't want the flavors of the toasting chiles and things like that to get out of the kitchen and waft the White House. I thought it was inappropriate to do that. Cris Comerford, the chef there, she ensured me that they had really good exhaust systems and she was right, it took all those aromas out, but I toasted the chiles just a few at a time so the aroma would not leak out of the kitchen," Bayless added.

At the end, the labor was well worth it because, the chef said, "It's one of the best moles I have ever made."

Bayless is used to working under the spotlight-- he also took top honors on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" TV program.