Hail to the Chef

Psilakis Cooks at the White House: ‘Is This What Heroin Feels Like?’

Chef Psilakis high off the White House.
Chef Psilakis high off the White House. Photo: The White House

In honor of Greek Independence Day, Michael Psilakis and three of his team had the rare opportunity — first ever, actually, for outside chefs — to cook at the White House on Wednesday. In two prep days that each began at 5 a.m., they split up an all-Psilakis menu of traditional and new dishes with the White House’s own team of chefs, each taking half (the in-house staff took the traditional half, natch), and served it all to an esteemed group that included members of the Greek community and President Barack Obama himself. For those who want a taste of what was served, check out a scallops-and-sweetbreads “sandwich” currently on offer at Anthos Upstairs. We had a chance to chat with chef Psilakis briefly this morning, and got his take on what he called an “overwhelming” experience.

On cooking for the president: It was probably the most overwhelming thing that I’ve ever had to encounter. I haven’t felt nervous about something in a very long time. This is actually like, “Oh my God.” I felt like the weight of Greece was on my shoulders … It was just an unbelievable experience from an emotional perspective.

On cooking for the prez as compared to the critics: The biggest difference is that critical reviews from Bruni or Platt have more to do with your individual sort of ascension in the culinary world, because these are things that are used to gauge how — they’re almost a competitive thing. People say you’re a one-star chef, a two-star chef … and it involved business, because obviously there’s a direct connection between a good review and the amount of people who will come walking through your door. This kind of put all that aside. Fortunately, because both Frank and Adam have been kind to us as a group, we’ve been able to use those things to get us on the list to go to the White House. This was just a completely different experience altogether. It’s not just about me. I’m a little person — this was a big thing.

On prepping for this kind of gig: It was a collaborative effort. The White House chefs couldn’t have welcomed us with more open arms. They went well beyond what even I’ve seen. You’re talking about the White House, a lot of hurdles you have to go through to get there. And they went through it with us every step of the way … We were in the kitchen for a day and a half. You have to prep everything there. We got up at 5 a.m. and were in the kitchen cooking by 6 a.m. both days … we just made it under the belt. We did a lot of things that I thought were interesting and intricate at the same time. There’s nothing like that rush getting towards the end and getting into that zone where all you’re thinking about is what’s going on and what you have to accomplish. When you’re in that zone and you’re just doing it, but it’s like you’re by yourself.

More on this rush: Sometimes I wonder, is this what heroin feels like? And is that why it’s so hard to recover from the addiction? If you could bottle it and get that every time you wanted a fix, I’m not sure if we all wouldn’t be dope fiends. It’s such an intense feeling. You just don’t get it every day. It’s not like alcohol — or any of the drugs I’ve tried. It’s an existential experience. Everything is so crystal clear, it’s unbelievable. This was just one of those really, truly amazing experiences.

It’s just so different when you look at an audience of people that are really important beyond our vacuum of the world. And that’s what you get when you go there. It’s like, holy shit. This is bigger than Anthos, Kefi, Mia Dona. I have to say that the feeling in the White House — they are excited for Obama to be there. There’s a great vibe …

Here I am cooking for the president on Greek Independence Day and we’re the first chefs ever to do it like this. It was overwhelming. I really started to feel pressure. I’m saying, Dude, we can’t fuck this one up. Initially you feel pressure, then you’re just cooking … it felt like the best food we’ve ever cooked.

On meeting Obama: When you meet him, he’s a very charismatic presence. He’s much larger than I expected him to be, physically. He has that presence that I think all good leaders have. It’s amazing how much respect he’s already garnered at the White House. They speak of him in awe.

And, finally, on the Garden: The Obamas’ chef is in charge of the garden — he’s so excited about it. What’s amazing is it’s going beyond the garden. They’re even doing their own honey. While I was there they were bringing over the beehives. They’re starting hives — it’s unbelievable.

Psilakis Cooks at the White House: ‘Is This What Heroin Feels Like?’