Cooking with the First Female Executive Chefs at a Historic White House Plant-Based Dinner
The White House made history with its first-ever plant-based state dinner, which honored the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a strict vegetarian.
This monumental occasion was further celebrated by the fact that the main contributors behind the event were all women. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden invited the renowned plant-based chef Nina Curtis to curate the menu, marking a significant milestone in promoting sustainable and inclusive culinary practices.
An avid proponent of a plant-based lifestyle for over two decades, Chef Curtis has worked with the Marriott Group, Hilton Hotels, Pure Food and Wine in New York, the Springs Restaurant and Wine Bar, Los Angeles, the Ranch Malibu, and Adventist Health Corporate Campus, Ca. Holding positions as Director and Executive Chef has led Chef Curtis to successfully set up and lead kitchen operations.
Chef Nina Curtis collaborated with White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, combining their talents to create a memorable fusion of American and Indian flavors. From the delightful Marinated Millet and Grilled Corn Salad to the Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms and Creamy Saffron-Infused Risotto, each course showcased the artistry and innovation of plant-based cuisine.
The evening culminated in a fusion of Indian spices with a classic American dessert—Rose and Cardamom-Infused Strawberry Shortcake with Coconut Whipped Cream.
To gain insights into what it feels like to play a key role in such an unprecedented event at the White House, I had the privilege of interviewing Chef Nina Curtis about her firsthand experience.
Chef Nina Curtis, could you share with us how you received the invitation from the First Lady to curate the menu? What thoughts and emotions ran through your mind?
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s social secretary was the first to reach out to me and inform me of Dr. Biden’s invitation for me to curate the dinner. At first I thought, who’s pranking me? Lol! As our conversation went on, I quickly realized it was truly legit and I listened intently to what was being requested of me. My mind jumped into gear and I immediately started drafting my first thoughts.
The main goal, as was requested by Dr. Jill Biden, was to present the best in American Culinary Cuisine, through the lens of plant-based fare, as Prime Minister Modi is a strict vegetarian. Of course seasonal, local (as much as possible), sustainable, with accents of Indian cuisine flavors and elements, first flooded my mind. I created several menu options and then shared my ideas with the Executive Chef team and we got to work collaborating on the tasting menu to present to Dr. Jill Biden and her team.
Curating the first-ever plant-based state dinner menu while collaborating with the White House Executive Chef and Executive Pastry Chef must have been an exciting endeavor.
Can you walk us through your creative process and how you worked together to create the menu?
As mentioned previously, I initially created several menu options, including millets as the UN has declared 2023 the Year of Millets, and India is leading the way in this promotion. I then submitted my menus to Executive Chef Cris Comerford, Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison and other executive team members.
We had several discussions to narrow down what would be best to present to Dr. Jill Biden and her team during the menu tasting. We presented a dozen different dishes in total. We were expecting 400 guests and we knew that the benchmark was to create a ‘wow factor’ and then from there we had to consider what would hold and present well.
Sometimes you have great ideas but can they be executed in the way you want and get to the table looking and tasting the same as was presented during the tasting? If the food has to be held for longer periods of time then you might expect you have to consider all of these factors. Most chefs understand this. I’m on the West Coast so I started recipe testing and sent recipe revisions and photos to the White House EC team. We were able to tighten everything up in preparation for the tasting and we had a very successful session.
Working in the White House kitchen must have presented unique challenges. What were some of the key obstacles you faced, and how did you address them to ensure a smooth and successful event?
The White House Executive Chef team are masters when it comes to welcoming guest chefs into their kitchens. This is not their first rodeo. They run a very tight and organized ship, while being very flexible with the nuances and needs of different chefs. I run kitchens that I’ve led in the same manner — organized, tight but with consideration and flexibility for the unexpected.
Since we were curating an all plant-based menu I created a list of ingredients and items that I knew might not be regularly stocked in the White House kitchen and, if an item was not available for order, I had options. Communication is always key and thinking ahead and having options really made my experience feel seamless.
I adapt quickly to new environments so I think that helped a lot. I took lots of notes and was very hands-on, all in all, it was a very comfortable experience.
It’s evident that your culinary expertise and dedication to plant-based cuisine left a lasting impact at the White House.
If you were invited to curate another plant-based menu in the future, what aspects would you approach differently, and what new ideas might you bring to the table?
I gained a lot of experience from this state dinner and my success came from listening intently, remembering that I was there to serve and to make sure that I executed Dr. Jill Biden’s vision for this dinner to the best of my ability, while being a team player.
I’ve held several leadership positions in the kitchen, and this event was about a collaborative effort between Executive Cris Comerford, Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison and myself, and we really worked well together. While we are all leaders in our own respective positions, there were no egos in the mix and that was a wonderful experience. I truly felt we made ‘herstory’ that evening and leading up to it.
Now that I have a pretty good lay of the land in the White House kitchen and its operations, given an opportunity to go back, I would do as I did, be very hands-on and let my creative juices flow, while celebrating the moment.
For more about Chef Nina Curtis, visit her website