The secret service was set to pick us up at 6:30 AM sharp at the restaurant. We loaded the van with all of our prepped food for the days lunch. We and the team at MXDC were to cook for the entire West Wing staff, including the President, on the day the Mexican president was visiting Obama. Ironically, we were not aware of the state visit until we started mixing up the salsa. There’s sort of a beautiful synergy there - we just so happened to fill the white house and west wing staffers with the flavors, smells, and in many ways traditions of the Mexican people on the day that the country president was to meet with President Obama. The day would become another great example of the power of Food to bring people together.
It was sweltering. One of the hottest days in recent memory. We walked out in front of Pennsylvania avenue and around to the side security gate. Once in the white house complex, we headed to the West Wing kitchen at 7AM to get started to meet the rest of the US Navy team.The US Navy Food Service team oversees food preparation and delivery for the president and his family around the world.
Back in the day, the story goes that President Truman wanted to host a dinner party on the river. The only vessel at the time the was large and safe enough to host the president and his party was a US NAVY ship. When it came to who was going to cook the dinner, the President said that he only trusted the Navy Sailors. The US Navy Food Service team was born. It was an honor and a privilege to work with these fine men and women to execute a lunch and become friends through a common craft. Now a core of 65 permeant members travel around the word weeks in advance of the presidential visits to inspect all food sources and oversees to ensure none tries to tamper with the food in an effort to hurt the president and his family. They will literally inspect farms, production facilitates and oversee kitchen operations for foreign state diners. Occasionally, they will completely take over a foreign kitchen. As Charlie explained to me “If Boss wants an omelet, he gets an omelet”. Valid.
It was ultimately through Food that we bonded with the Navy Food Service Team. I had spent my life in the restaurant business, and these guys had spent 20+ years feeding and fueling our navy and our president around the world. These were the guys that ran the food program on air craft carriers around the world. One in particular, Dave, was stationed on the air craft carrier with Chris Kyle, the famed American Sniper, and was part of the first battle group to sail from Asia to the Persian Gulf post 9/11 - they “were the first to arrive, made it in 12 hours, reloading with missiles and food mid cruise”.
These guys had all kinds of riveting stories about there work in the global food service business working with the Navy. Although they had a completely different experience and perspective on the food world, ultimately we shared the common humanity of feeding, fueling, and bringing smile so peoples faces around the world through Food.
We had a little time to kill before lunch service started, so I decided to explore a bit. Right next to the mess hall from kitchen entrance was the situation room. Yes, THE Situation Room. Not the one with Wolf Blitzer, the real one. The one where Presidents make big time plays - like the one where Obama decided to go after Bin Laden. I started to take a photo of the Situation Room Door. Before I could even take the photo on my phone (and I thought I was quick), two secret service agents open the door and grab my phone. I was terrified, admittedly. Not the greatest start to my journey. Note to self - DO NOT try and tauOke photos of inside government buildings, especially of “incredibly sensitive” doorways. Got it Oliver, nice.
The restaurant operates a take out window as well for the entire white house staff. Going in and out of security is kind of a pain so, most staff use the restaurant. While the team completed lunch service, President Obamas personal Valet (personal butler, not the guy who parks your car), Charles, came to get us for a tour of the oval office and west wing meeting rooms. It became evident that best way to explore was with someone who had the proper credentials, and what turned out to be a fascinating level of presidential and American History.
After touring the west wing offices, we stopped in the office of the press secretary, Josh Earnest. He is the daily communications point person between the Obama administration the public. We started chatting about his background and I had explained that my work in the global hospitality business had been a catalyst for my passion for foreign policy. He asked if I wanted to attend the press conference directly after President Pena’s meeting with President Obama. Strong YES.”
Just before service was set to start, Josh’s assistant came to get me and walked me in the East wing, where the joint press conference was to be held. I was nervous, and sweating. (Which I was later made aware of) I arrived just before all of the press were let in. A few minutes later Obama and President Pena entered the room to begin the conference. It was an incredibly powerful experience to be in the presence of such a masterful communicator. The whole thing felt like a movie set, with the textbook gold curtains, chandleries, and presidential podiums. After the press conference, I went back to the kitchen to complete lunch service.
The whole experience was surreal and unforgettable. To be at the center of it all - of American and Global politics. To witness first hand a presidential press conference and prepare an authentic lunch for the west wing staff reminded me once again of the power of food, and its uncanny ability to bring people together. It was through Food that we bonded with the Food Service team. It was through Food that we injected some Mexican tradition in the West wing staff on the day the Mexican President met with Obama. Food defines our common humanity, one that defies borders and political affiliation. It does so in a way that transcends racial, geographical, and sociopolitical backgrounds. I will continue to better and more fully utilize food to bring people together in the future, and to create positive change in the world through the great connector.