By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers
In picking India as the guest nation for the Obama administration's first state visit, the president and first lady have done the easy work. Now come the tense, grueling chores of choosing a menu, floral arrangements, a gown for the first lady, and entertainers to cap the first couple's inaugural state dinner. And virtually all of that is on the shoulders of Michelle Obama.
"A state dinner is so much more like a Broadway play than a dinner," says former White House chef Walter Scheib, who worked for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "People will be watching closely for Mrs. Obama's personal style of entertaining," he says.
The timing could be tricky. The November 24 date is just two days before Thanksgiving, another flashpoint for the first lady's holiday entertaining style. And it's right before the White House begins decorating for Christmas.
Scheib, who's played a leading role in many state dinners, tells Whispers that by now the planning for the visit has started. Practice for the arrival ceremony has been set, details of the bilateral talks are being drafted, and menus are being suggested. He said the kitchen staff will start with a briefing book from the State Department detailing the dietary preferences of the guests; foods they like and don't like or can't eat for reasons such as religious prohibitions will be fully considered. "The menu will reflect the needs and wants of the guest country," says Scheib, who runs a business re-creating White House dinners and giving talks about life in the Bush and Clinton East Wings.
Scheib recalls that former first lady Laura Bush was very involved in picking the final menu and would conduct several taste tests with about 20 friends. He called it a White House version of TV's Iron Chef. Then she'd pick the winner. Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state now will handle the diplomatic issues for her first state visit in her new role, delegated more to key staffers and would "cut and paste" parts of different menus he'd offer up to her.
He thinks that his replacement, chef Cris Comerford , and the Obamas' Chicago chef, assistant White House chef Sam Kass, are already consulting with the first lady on the menu.
But it's more than food, he adds. Other key elements are choosing the china, wines, flowers, and cutlery. And here it can all come down to color, specifically the color Mrs. Obama picks for her dress. Starting with that, the planners will then choose flower, tablecloth, and china hues—and even the color of the first course, he says. "It really can be influenced by the choice of the cloth picked by some designer up in New York," he says.
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