I found out the second week of October that they had chosen me to be the chef for the state dinner. I still remember the rush of excitement that I felt. However, there was just a little hiccup: I had just agreed to compete on Top Chef Masters and we were shooting in L.A. Sam needed me for tastings, but I couldn't leave the set.
One of the things that I have learned is that to be a good chef, you have to have an incredible group of people around you. Since I couldn't leave the Top Chef Masters set, I had to ask Andrea Luz Bergquist and Jimmy Lappalainen, who have cooked with me for many years, to go to D.C. without telling anyone and conduct a tasting without me. I knew exactly what I wanted to cook at this point, and we had gone over the dishes and ingredients so many times, I was confident they would do well. My team knows I trust their skills and technique. This was a huge test—and they did extraordinarily well.
This team is like my family. It was important to me that I walked though the gates of the White House with a team that represented the diversity of this country, and I had men and women from all different parts of the world working with me to make the evening special.
Before we knew it, the night had actually come. After many meetings, phone calls and tastings, I was going to feed 325 people within 45 minutes. I took the red-eye flight from L.A. to D.C. the night before the dinner. I was exhausted, but was just so excited to see everything we had worked on for several weeks come together.
My team of 10 was with me. I am forever grateful to the very smart and talented White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford for welcoming all of us in her kitchen and helping us feel very comfortable so we could do our job well. As a special treat, my wife, Maya, also came with me. She doesn't usually cook with me at events, but since this was so special, I asked her to join me. In addition to my team, Cristeta had a staff of 20 and we all took our stations in the kitchen to do what we do best—cook!
Go inside the White House kitchen