Politicos' caterer: White House dining has changed substantially

Jamie and Chef Larry Barrett of Simply Gourmet, Sarasota

Jamie and Chef Larry Barrett of Simply Gourmet, Sarasota

Chef Larry Barrett and his wife, Jamie, are the owners of Simply Gourmet in Sarasota, which is catering private parties during the Republican Convention in Tampa this month. Barrett has studied dinners given at the White House and offered observations on food-related questions about the presidential race:

Naples Daily News: The Republican Convention is being held Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, and, it being so close in miles, people might want to entertain as if they were part of the election process. What is one of the presidential menus that would be appropriate to entertain guests while the convention is in Southwest Florida?

Larry Barrett: I would serve this menu that Reagan served to Gorbachev 1987: Salmon and lobster medallions with caviar sauce and fennel seed twists; loin of veal with wild mushrooms and Champagne sauce; gold/red tarragon tomatoes and corn turban; medley of garden greens with Brie, crushed walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette; tea sorbet with wild honey; chocolate truffle medley and assorted nuts. Wines to accompany the dinner are Iron Horse Brut, Jordan chardonnay and Stags Leap cabernet.

NDN: What difference do you think the Romneys would make in dining if Mitt Romney wins the election in November?

LB: If Romney won the presidency, I think there would be less emphasis on restaurant-quality food and presentation in the personal/family dining realm.

Lamb chop entree from Simply Gourmet

Lamb chop entree from Simply Gourmet

I think Romney would put a greater emphasis on comfort foods with a down home simplicity. The Obamas are foodies and love to frequent restaurants of all ethnic varieties. Romney would probably keep state dinners as the swanky event everybody has come to love. I'll be curious to see what his opinion is on serving alcohol.

NDN: How has dining and entertaining changed through the years in the White House?

LB: Major transformations in dining at the White House have occurred during our history. These changes always mirror the culinary changes in our society. (Ulysses S.) Grant was the first president to have a state dinner. He served a 29-course meal.

Things are certainly simpler now. State dinners always consist of four courses. Some of the major changes over the years have been the way the food was served. Grant served food one plate at a time a la Russe (like restaurants today). Soon after his administration food was served French style on platters with guests helping themselves.

JFK brought hard liquor back to the White House for the first time since Prohibition. Also, for the first time, guests were seated at round tables instead of rectangles and guests and spouses were separated so there would be more conversation.

A table setting fit for a president.

A table setting fit for a president.

Wines and cuisine were still influenced by the French style. Clinton changed the French service back to service by the plate after Hillary saw several guests struggling. Food is still served in this style. The Clintons and JFK had a great influence on White House dining. The Clintons hired an American chef and emphasized local ingredients and cuisine with an American flair. American wine is now served exclusively.

NDN: Which president or first lady do you think made the best contribution to entertaining during his or her time in the White House? What was it that you felt changed for the best?

LB: Dolley Madison as first lady, because she opened the White House to the public. She hosted such large parties that they were called crushes. These were informal gatherings that included simple foods and whiskey punch. Dolley was the first first lady to take charge of the social agenda of the White House.

Her job, as she viewed it, was to be in charge of all entertaining and make sure the President was surrounded by assistants able to prepare the necessary foods and organize all events to make the United States shine in the eyes of the world. Dolley was considered the best hostess until Jacqueline Kennedy, when it was said of the Kennedys they had the best food since Jefferson and the best hostess since Madison.

Crab mimosa salad from Simply Gourmet

Crab mimosa salad from Simply Gourmet

NDN: If you were entertaining the Obamas what would you serve? The Romneys?

LB: I would serve the Obamas something with a Mexican flair — American Angus beef with a mole sauce, tomato and tomatillo salad with sherry vinegar to celebrate their garden, also a grilled lobster tail on a bed of jicama drizzled with a saffron vinaigrette to start.

Romney has roots in New England, and I'd prepare a seafood chowder celebrating the best of the Atlantic with a home-baked flatbread and cracker assortment (and) a filet stuffed with a roasted vegetable duxelle and a red wine and shallot demi. I'd have to serve a beautiful potato gratin, and the salad course would be beautiful local greens mixed with fresh herbs, a hazelnut vinaigrette, fresh berries, crushed hazelnuts and a black pepper crusted goat cheese medallion.

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