Michael Psilakis on What It's Like to Cook for President Obama
At Food & Wine, we think our Best New Chef awards are some of the most prestigious in the culinary world. They are of course – and we have a whole new class to announce next week. (Stay tuned!). But there are some even greater honors and one of them would surely be to cook at the White House to mark your country’s Independence Day. Michael Psilakis, who was an outstanding F&W Best New Chef last year, received just such an honor earlier this week when he cooked a meal to mark Greek Independence Day. There are some things Psilakis can’t talk about—like whether he managed to get President Barack Obama to eat beets (which he doesn’t like), or even what the President ate in general. And there are some things that are already well detailed in Psilakis’s interview with The Feedbag. But the chef did have some other insights which makes me want to go to the White House right now, even if Psilakis isn’t still cooking there.
On Being One of the (or perhaps the Inaugural) First Outside Chefs to Cook in the White House “The White House chef said that though other chefs have participated in events, like picnics on the lawn, this was one of the first times an outside chef was physically in the kitchen, feeding the president. Everything was trippy because there was no protocol. The Food & Beverage Manager said, ‘tell me what you want and we’ll get it for you.’ That never happens. That’s on top of the fact that I think I'm the first Greek chef there, to celebrate Greek Independence day.”
On the Menu Raw meze of tuna with feta dust and pickled raw and dehydrated watermelon; open goat moussaka; braised snails with rabbit confit; trahana (pebble size pasta) in a rabbit jus with dehydrated halloumi cheese; roast octopus with pickled morel mushrooms, baby fennel and leeks.
Highlight of the White House Tour The China Room. "The china from almost every president is on display in that room. The thought of the First Lady choosing to have Lincoln china for lunch that she’ll have with a head of state: She can call up the kitchen and say, ‘I’m having lunch with the Queen, I’d like to use the Washington china.’ You’re a chef and you can actually plate on that presidential china. My favorite was the Washington china. The first First Lady ever picked those things."
On Meeting the President “It’s incredible. He’s captivated those people at the White House, even in this short period of time. They really believe in him, even the cooks. He walked into the kitchen and said 'hi.' I said, ‘hi.’ He said, ‘What is this,’ and then asked if he could have some, I said ‘I think we can work something out.’ He laughed. Vice President Joe Biden was behind him, they both spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen. He was interested in the food, we had conversations about what I was cooking. He’s much larger in life than he is on television. It was unbelievable that he just came into the kitchen.”
On Getting a Picture Taken with the President “Here’s the best way to tell you that he’s the real thing. We were taking a picture underneath a portrait, a painting of Jefferson, I believe. And there was a table of food right next to us. And the President said, ‘This isn’t the right picture, you should be by the food. And so we took another picture by the food. How many "stars"—athletes, musicians, who aren’t nearly as powerful as the President of the United States—would be that warm and welcoming?”
On Cooking at the White House for Greek Independence Day “I feel like I just won a gold medal for my country – for Greece and for the culinary world. It was monumental, once in a lifetime and surreal. I’m not usually at a loss for words, but it’s hard to put this into words. It’s been my goal as a chef to show people that Greek food can, should and will stand right next to Italian and French in the world of haute cuisine. I tried as hard as I possibly could to make Greece as a nation look good and I hope I did a good job.”