As Inauguration Day approaches, president-elect Obama faces a full plate of problems in what might fairly be called "The White House Mess." I respectfully suggest something more palatable for Mr. and Mrs. Obama to consider: the role of the White House kitchen.
Much has been made of the similarities between the Obamas and the Kennedys -- their youth, their style, and their vigor. Once again it seems the White House could be a place that celebrates the richness of American culture and values, especially our dining culture. Done right, this will promote our economy, health, sustainability and diversity. Here is a short menu of ideas:
To start, the next Presidential chef should also serve as a "culinary impresario" who would regularly invite top American toques into the White House, not just to demonstrate their skills, but also to highlight American ingredients, healthful meals and affordable menu items. Imagine chefs like Lydia Bastianich, Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, David Chang, Tom Colicchio -- and we're only up to the letter C in New York City alone -- preparing state dinners.
Notable restaurateurs (e.g., Danny Meyer, Rich Melman, Ralph Brennan), lifestyle entrepreneurs (Martha Stewart, B. Smith, Sheila Lukins), sustainability experts (Dan Barber, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters) and nutritionists (Marion Nestle, Walter Willett) could also be called on to consult on how American food can be not just delicious, but also healthful, affordable and sustainable.
From what I've read, the Obamas' personal food choices demonstrate that "American food" is a literal melting pot of world cuisines -- it's known that the Obamas' favorite restaurant is Topolobampo, Rick Bayless' Mexican venue in Chicago, and that they like lots of other cuisines. How about an Italian dinner (26% of Americans name it as their favorite cuisine), or Chinese, French Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese meals, to name just a few "American cuisines." Celebrating national holidays also should be part of the program.
At a time when many Americans are overweight, the trim First Family should serve as models of healthy eating balanced with regular exercise. Let's hear about how the Obamas eat as fresh and locally as possible to show that Americans can both eat well and be well.
I'm not asking for a bailout for the agriculture or restaurant industries, even though they employ over 15 million people. I'm simply suggesting that an occasional eat-out, or an eat-in with the whole Obama family, if planned well and publicized wisely, could positively affect the way we all eat. How about starting with a good old-fashioned American Sunday dinner -- with the new First Puppy running around the table?
Tim Zagat is the CEO of Zagat Survey.