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.
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!
Several of my friends wanted to know what the White House kitchen was like. It is a good, solid kitchen, but it is not fancy. We all worked very well together—we had to be organized and man our stations efficiently. We set up four stations, and each person was in charge of preparing food for 100 people. I kept going back and forth between the stations, tasting food, making sure everything was okay. Once the guests arrived, I spoke to the wait staff and mâtre d' to make sure the plates went out on time and everything was served at the right temperature.
All the guests were seated in a beautiful tent outside of the White House, so we also had to make sure the food was kept hot before it was served. In order to do this, we set up a few warmers outside so everything would be perfect when it was served.
Since the first family actually lives in the White House, I wondered how I would feel if I was hosting a grand evening inside this historical home. I really wanted everyone—especially the guests of honor—to feel welcomed and to have a good time. A bread course had never been served before at the White House state dinner, but I chose bread as the first course because I knew people would be coming from different parts of the country and from around the world. I thought it would be very symbolic to have everyone breaking bread together. So, we served cornbread, chutneys, naan and sambals.
The rest of the meal consisted of lentil soup, salad with an Indian mustard vinaigrette, basmati rice with greens and tomato chutney and prawns cooked in a light curry sauce. It was spicy, so it tasted authentic and flavorful!
All in all, this dinner was a huge success. For two hours, it felt like I was on an adrenaline rush, as if I had been running the whole time.
After the dinner, the entire cooking team was going to get the opportunity to meet the president and the first lady. I remember feeling very excited. As an immigrant who became a United States citizen, I just felt so much pride for the president when I watched him being sworn in.
It was after 11 p.m. We knew they were exhausted, but they were going to stop by quickly. They were so warm and very gracious. Michael helped me cook the entire meal and was so excited and tired at the same time that when he met the president and the president asked him a question, he responded, "Yes, chef." That is a term we use when addressing the head of the kitchen, but he said that to the president and we all had a good laugh.
After that, around 30 of us, including Sam, headed to a bar to enjoy some nice, cold beers. We were in such a great mood! We were seated at the bar when CNN came on and showed all the guests that were at the dinner. We all looked at the TV and then laughed. It was just an incredible moment.
It's one of those days that when I look back I will never forget.