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Chef Nicole Perderson on Preparing the White House State Dinner

Chef Nicole Perderson on Preparing the White House State Dinner

Melissa Harris | Chicago Tribune

At first, C-House executive chef Nicole Pederson believed she was flying to Washington to cook at “a secret luncheon.” But on the eve of her departure, her boss revealed the truth: Pederson and her pastry chef, Toni Roberts, were going to help prepare the state dinner.

“I was kind of surprised I could bring my own knives with me,” said the 32-year-old former sous chef at Lula, who has run C-House, Marcus Samuelsson’s Streeterville restaurant, for three months. “The other thing that was really surprising … was that the overall feeling when I left was that I had just spent three days working in someone’s home. I don’t know if they try to make it feel that way, or if it’s just that way because the people are so friendly.”

Pederson said that Bo, the Obamas’ dog, was always “running around downstairs,” begging to go outside. The Bush China was slowly wheeled “only 20 plates at a time” to the tables by four men. When Samuelsson arrived, he “picked practically every herb” from the White House garden to add to the salad. He wanted all of the flavors “bolder and bigger,” she said. And “service was very intense,” she said. White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, a holdover from the Bush administration, commanded the room.

“She’s this tiny little Filipino woman, managing 80 servers and 30 cooks, and when she puts her hand up, and says, ‘Excuse me,’ everyone is immediately silent,” Pederson said. "And she’s standing there by the door, listening to the speeches. And she says, ‘After the second round of applause, that’s when we’re going to go.’ "

The Obamas dropped by the kitchen about 11:30 p.m. Despite getting little sleep, Pederson said “she’d do it again in a heartbeat.” In fact, she plans to do just that on Dec. 9, when C-House features the state dinner ($54) and wine pairings ($20) on its menu.

Behind the scenesThree years ago, Steve Singerman, the PR man for Terlato Wines International in Lake Bluff, pitched a marketing idea to his boss: Give Bravo’s “Top Chef” show free wine with the hope that it would be poured on-air.

Bill Terlato, the company’s CEO, wasn’t a regular viewer, but his 20-something daughter was. He signed off on the release of 40 to 50 cases per season, worth $12,000 to $14,000.