California Chefs Cooked For President Obama’s 2014 Greek Independence Day Reception

Chef Mario Ortega, l, and Chef Erik Cosselmon in the Kitchen Garden

NorCal Executive Chefs Erik Cosselmon of Kokkari and Mario Ortega of Evvia have been at the White House since Wednesday, and dish on the menu of traditional delights they’ve created for the closed-press party…

Washington, DC – The White House has pulled out all the stops for President Barack Obama’s Greek Independence Day reception this evening, inviting two acclaimed chefs from Northern California to join the White House chefs to prepare a delicious Mediterranean menu of holiday delights.  Vice President Joe Biden will join his boss to welcome hundreds of guests to the 5:40 PM closed-press event in the East Room. 

Erik A. Cosselmon, Executive chef at San Francisco’s Kokkari Estiatorio and Mario Ortego, Executive Chef at Palo Alto’s Evvia have been at the White House since Wednesday, working with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses and their teams.  The two restaurants are owned by the same culinary group, and have gotten high marks from critics.

The President’s party is a little late:  Greek Independence Day was on March 25th, but Mr. Obama was busy blasting through Europe last week.  He issued a holiday Presidential Proclamation, noting Greece’s role as the foundation for American Democracy, and hailing the nation as «a valued NATO ally.»

«On Greek Independence Day, we honor the deep connections between our two nations and celebrate the democratic ideals at the heart of our shared history,» Mr. Obama said.  «Our friendship remains as strong as ever.» 

A White House assistant chef grills lamb chops beneath the North Portico

The chefs are making their first visit to the White House, and have created «a traditional» menu, Cosselmon told Obama Foodorama during an interview on the sidelines of the Kitchen Garden, which the chefs toured with Comerford and Yosses.  Cosselmon dubbed the garden «pretty amazing.»

The party menu will «of course include lamb chops,» Cosselmon said. «There’s also octopus, spanakotiropita, lots of tzatziki, melitzanosalata, zucchini cakes, and feta cheese.»

Certainly that will delight Mr. Obama’s guests, who are expected to include Greek religious and community leaders, members of the foreign service, and Members of Congress and Administration officials with Greek heritage.  Between 200 and 300 guests are typically invited.  Tonight’s event is the 28th time the holiday has been celebrated at the White House.

The octopus will be poached in red wine and then grilled with lemon, oregano and olive oil.  Spanakotiropita is traditional filo pies of spinach, feta, leeks and dill, while melitzanosalata is an eggplant dip made with tomatoes.  Tzatziki is a garlicy sauce for grilled meats, made with yogurt and cucumbers.  The zucchini cakes will be served with with cucumber & mint yogurt dressing.  Ortega has worked with Yosses to create sweet treats.

Ortega consults during the grilling

On Thursday afternoon one of the assistant White House chefs was busy grilling outdoors beneath the North Portico, prepping the hundreds of lamb chops called for on the menu, using a big black grill.  The area is steps away from the ground-floor kitchen, and the chefs make frequent use of the space.  During the Christmas holidays it is converted to a full outdoor kitchen, complete with convection ovens and fryolators.

The grill was filled with mesquite charcoal made by the Lazzari company, and the lamb chops were cooked rare over the white-hot and smoking coals.  A rolling rack contained many sheets of lamb chops.

Asked if they were nervous about cooking for the President, both Cosselmon and Ortega said no.

«Not nervous, excited,» Cosselmon said.  «This is what we do all the time.  We’re excited.»

«It’s a nice opportunity,» Ortega said, smiling.  He said he’s cooked for the exiled President of Peru, who teaches at Stanford University.  He also worked in DC during the Clinton Administration.

The chefs flew in on Tuesday night to make sure they had plenty of prep time, Cosselmon said.  «Some of the dishes require pre-prep, and it gave us the change to adjust the flavors.»  

Neither chef claims Greek heritage, they both pointed out, laughing.  Cosselmon, a Michigan native, said he’d submitted the party menu ahead of time to the White House Social Office, which had subtracted some dishes.  

«My menu was way too big,» Cosselmon said.  «I wanted to give them a lot of choices​.»

The White House kitchen is relatively tiny at just 23 by 28 feet, but the chefs said they weren’t surprised:  They’d seen pictures before arriving.

«My kitchen is even smaller,» Ortega, a California native, said of his workspace at Evvia.   

The lamb chops, cooked rare

A national holiday in Greece, Greek Independence Day commemorates the nation’s declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 after being occupied for 400 years.  It also marks the Feast of the Annunciation in the Greek Orthodox Church.  The holiday is celebrated in communities across America.

In 2010, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and his wife Ada were Mr. Obama’s guests of honor for the holiday reception, and Iron Chef America champ Cat Cora, a Greek-American, was the guest chef.  In 2012, chef Maria Loi, who owns an eponymous Greek restaurant in New York, was invited to be the guest chef.

Biden calls Greek Prime Minister…
Vice President Biden on Thursday phoned Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras «to congratulate Greece in advance of Greek Independence Day celebrations at the White House,» the White House said in a readout of the call.

«The Vice President expressed appreciation for the valuable role Greece continues to play as a strategic partner and NATO ally. He welcomed Greece’s continued economic progress as the government carries out its reforms, and pledged enduring U.S. support for returning Greece to economic growth and prosperity,» the White House said.

«The two leaders discussed the on-going situation in Ukraine, including support for the upcoming May elections and the need to stand united against Russian aggression. They also discussed the importance of transatlantic cooperation on energy security. Finally, Vice President Biden expressed appreciation to Greece for its support for a just and lasting settlement that reunites Cyprus as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.» 


*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama


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