Hosting 25 for Seder is nothing out of the ordinary for me. In fact, by early April, my plans for this year’s first night meal were well underway when I received a phone call that changed everything.

Sitting in my car, about to get out and watch my son’s baseball game, I answered a call from Matt Nosanchuck, the White House director for outreach and liaison to the Jewish community, among other duties. Since last fall, I have been providing some recipes and food-related content for Jewish holidays for Matt’s White House blogs and newsletters to the Jewish community nationally. (Check out the Passover blog with haroset recipes  and the Purim blog with recipes.)

This call, however, was about something entirely different: Would I be interested in helping with this year’s Seder at the White House?

I think I gasped audibly. As trite as it sounds, I could hardly believe my ears! Needless to say, I missed some of the baseball game as Matt and I talked more.

Vered Guttman and Susan Barocas in the White House kitchen with matzah balls ready for the White House Seder

Vered Guttman and Susan Barocas in the White House kitchen with matzah balls ready for the White House Seder

The Seder, a private event hosted by the President and First Lady, is attended by close friends and staffers, both current and former. It started in 2008 on the campaign trail when three Jewish staffers gathered in a small basement room at a hotel with some matzah, wine and Maxwell House haggadahs for an improvised Seder. Somehow then-Senator Obama heard about it and joined in.

It is now almost legendary, but true, that at the end of that Seder, after the toast “Next year in Jerusalem!” the candidate raised his glass and said, “Next year in the White House!”

As that came to be, each year since, there has been a Seder in the White House. The meal has featured mostly traditional dishes based on family recipes from the participants. This year, given the First Lady’s focus on healthy eating, she was interested in adding some lighter dishes with new flavors. Could I help, and did I know another Jewish cook who might also participate? It didn’t take me long to figure out I wanted to ask Vered Guttman, local caterer and blogger, to join me.

It’s strange that it somehow seemed so natural to be planning the Seder menu and arrangements over the next 10 days or so. Just like any other Seder meal. On the other hand…it was the White House!!! We went back and forth via email with recipe ideas and arrangements with White House Chef Cris Comerford and Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. It was decided that I would prepare my Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives while Vered would make Quinoa Salad with Yams and Tuscan Kale.

But as it was a private event, we were asked to keep our participation under wraps, even to friends and family. Now that was tough!

I have to make a confession here: I suggested my chicken dish having made it numerous times in my home and when catering over the years. People love it! The only problem was that I had no written recipe, and the White House needed one in advance. So I wrote up one that seemed as close as I could get and then, just to be sure, made it strictly following the recipe for my Seder guests the night before the White House dinner. The fact that I was following a recipe and seemed nervous about how it tasted baffled several of my guests who know me to be a very comfortable cook…but the secret was safe.

The next morning, April 15, the steady rain could not diminish our excitement as Vered and I went through security and onto the White House grounds. Was this really happening? Once inside, we were led downstairs to the area with the kitchen and flower “shop,” where several gorgeous arrangements were being made, including some for the Seder table and buffet, of course.

The dinner buffet at the 2014 White House Seder

The dinner buffet at the 2014 White House Seder

Two things struck me immediately: the shiny stainless steel kitchen was much smaller than I imagined (yes, even the State dinners are done out of that same space), and every member of the staff was a lovely blend of highly professional and very welcoming. Chef Cris showed us the walk-in coolers with ingredients prepped and ready for each of our dishes—something I could definitely get used to outside of the White House! Every detail of preparation and service was planned and timed. Four other kitchen staff members worked with steady focus throughout the day, preparing elements of the Seder meal as well as food for other White House needs.

At one point, the Cris took Vered and me upstairs to see the table beautifully set for 24. The china’s wide golden edges along with the monochromatic yellow flower arrangements matched the golden yellow color of the room’s walls. Everything came together to create a warm glow.

We also got a tour of the pastry kitchen, although “tour” isn’t really accurate as the most incredible desserts and candy creations are produced out of a very narrow galley-type space filled with all types of equipment, tools and ingredients as well as a heady smell of chocolate. Melted dark and milk chocolate were being kept at a steady temperature for the oversized hand-painted Easter eggs being made that day along with the Passover desserts.

Did I stay excited throughout the day? Yes! Was I nervous all day? Not so much once we got into the “routine,” although when I prepared my chicken dish at the wall of gas burners, I felt my nerves flare a bit if I thought too much about where I was and who would be eating my food. During the day, Vered and I rolled all the matzah balls and cooked them in chicken broth for extra flavor, a trick we explained to Chef Cris. We also advised on other elements of the dinner and Passover rules and traditions.

When it came time for the Seder itself, we plated our dishes for the buffet and went upstairs in the small service elevator. During the Seder itself, I listened to the guests seated in the golden room next door, words I know well in Hebrew and English, finding new, deeper meaning as I stood under a very large portrait of Abraham Lincoln and heard President Obama’s voice and laughter sometimes rising above the others.

Suddenly it was time to rush to help plate the first two courses—a circle of gefilte fish, almost like a mousse, topped with a circle of poached carrot and served with fresh greens, followed by the matzah ball soup. As the ushers served and cleared these courses, the warm food was set up on the buffet where the guests helped themselves to the main meal and then dessert.

It was almost 9 pm and still raining when we left the White House, each of us holding a box of leftovers (yes, everyone was offered the leftovers once the Obamas left) as we walked through the iron gate we had entered 11 hours earlier. No, we didn’t meet the President or First Lady, perhaps a little bit of a disappointment, but not much when thinking back on all that I saw and did the first time I cooked for the First Family for a Seder I will always remember.

Click here to see the White House post about the Seder, which includes the entire menu. 

Top photo: White House Chef Cris Cumerford at the table set for the Seder