CHICAGO — Will it be his pork with green tomatillo-avocado salsa, or the duck breast in red chile-apricot mole?
Perhaps the bacon-flavored corn masa cakes stuffed with black beans.
At the first family's request, Chicago chef Rick Bayless has been mum on his menu for the state dinner Wednesday to honor Mexican President Felipe Calderon, though he's dropped some hints:
- He's preparing a black mole sauce that takes days to make from scratch and includes more than 20 ingredients. "It's a really laborious thing," Bayless said. "But for an event like this nothing is too difficult."
- Herbs and lettuces from the White House garden will be used in at least one course. "We're not sure exactly what we'll get," he said, "but we'll play around with that ..."
- For dessert, strawberries picked from a local farm will be involved.
Fittingly, the celebrity chef with three top restaurants in Chicago specializes in contemporary Mexican cooking. He said Mrs. Obama requested the menu secrecy so the first family's 200 guests won't feel as if "they'd eaten the meal before they got there."
This is the Obamas' second state dinner, and Bayless is the second guest chef that Mrs. Obama has requested. In November, award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson prepared a meal for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The first couple are no strangers to Bayless' cuisine, having dined out on his cooking in their hometown. Bayless has called them "adventurous" eaters and said they ordered tasting menus.
Bayless was inspired by Mexican market foods more than two decades ago. He's the author of several Mexican cookbooks, appears in his own PBS series, "Mexico — One Plate at a Time," and has competed on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters."
He has also earned his share of awards: In 1988 Food & Wine named him best new chef. Three years later, the Beard Foundation named him best Midwest chef, then national chef of the year in 1995. Bon Appetit magazine named him cooking teacher of the year in 2002.
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But he considers preparing a White House state dinner a career highlight.
"It's moving into a different realm that I don't usually cook in," Bayless said. "I'm really honored to be able to offer what little thing I can offer to creating this special moment."
Planning for the state dinner started months ago, when Bayless said he proposed several menus and narrowed them to the best choices. Then White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford visited Bayless in Chicago for a special tasting and to see plate presentations.
"I went to the table to ask them how everything was," Bayless said. "It was very clear that Chef Comerford was not there to have a good time. She was there to do her job."
Bayless passed muster with Comerford and aims to prepare a state dinner "that will be both well executed and really interesting."
Cooking at the White House, he said, does have some restrictions. He said officials have to know where all the ingredients come from. At one point, he was told he couldn't bring his own knives. (Eventually he got permission.)
"I said that's like asking a famous runner to run in someone else's tennis shoes," Bayless said.
The chef said he never would have expected his type of modern cooking to be served at the White House.
"It's really a testament to the Obama administration," Bayless said. "They're really taking the wraps off everything and saying what's appropriate for right now."
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