I was in New York City when I got a call from Sam Kass in late August. I met Sam a few years ago and knew he had landed a job as the assistant chef/food initiative coordinator at the White House. I remember being surprised and excited when he asked me if I'd be interested in creating the menu for the state dinner. Sam told me they were speaking to other chefs, and the state dinner was going to honor Prime Minister Singh of India and his wife, Gursharan Kaur. Sam had asked us to make dishes that had a subtle Indian influence, and since the honored guests are both vegetarians, we had to make sure we could create a meal that would be very flavorful with no meat. The finalist would be chosen after evaluating each chef's tasting menu.
In order to prepare, I went grocery shopping in Jackson Heights, Queens, with my sous chef, Michael Garrett, because they have the best spices in a neighborhood called Little India.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could honor the president, the first lady and their distinguished guests while celebrating American and Indian culture. As I did my research on the first lady, it was so great to learn how much she cared about food and cultivating a garden on the South Lawn. I loved the fact that the first lady felt that through cultivating a garden, she could create a dialogue with the American people on what types of vegetables would keep them healthy and strong. I thought it would be great to use items from the garden, so we used arugula, thyme, dill, oregano and pineapple sage to create a menu that reflected the history of America and India and of African-Americans.
I started to think about the Obama administration and how interesting it would be to highlight a new approach to the state dinner. Since the president and the first lady really work hard to reach out to people all over the world, I wanted the first dish to represent something that is universal.
With these ideas in mind, we cooked more than 14 dishes for Sam to taste, including paneer eggplant salad, curry-rubbed chicken and tandoori smoked salmon. Find out how the tasting went