White House Executive Sous-Chef Tommy Kurpradit looks about 18-years-old but comports himself with the patient discretion characteristic of a seasoned statesman of the gastronomic world many times that age.
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Asked sotto voce what the Obama family really likes to eat, you know, in their private time, Kurpradit, a Maryland native of Thai descent, crinkles his face in laughter. "The freshest ingredients are important to us, of course," he allows, then laughs some more. "I'm in the garden every day."
Has he paid any attention to recent disapproval expressed of the president for his preponderant choice of beef as a main course for almost every presidential dinner? "No, I don't think about that, " he says, chuckling. Is he aware of such critiques? He laughs some more.
Beef or no beef, his contribution to a gala dinner being prepared in a Tel Aviv hotel Wednesday night will be a "Vegetable Lasagne," a construction of roasted and layered vegetables unified by a truffle vinaigrette.
Kurpradit, now 26, started working at the White House seven years ago, a fact he attributes only to "being at the right time at the right place."
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He is touring Israel this week under the auspices of an exclusive club called "Les Chefs des Chefs," an informal association of chefs to heads of state who go on an international gastronomic excursion once a year. The organization is sponsored by Gilles Bragard, who’s eponymous textile company is renowned for making high-end chefs' whites.
Touring Jerusalem's famed central market on an unusually chill and overcast day, the chefs veered more toward sweatshirts and anoraks. Elysée Palace executive chef Bernard Vaussion pronounced himself "frigorifié" by the unexpected weather.
To Kurpradit's right at a plush lunch at Jerusalem's sizzling-hot Machaneyuda restaurant sat Jérôme Rigaud, the only man at the table to work for a head of state other than his own.
A Frenchman, Rigaud is Executive Chef at the Kremlin. He is not permitted to purchase his own ingredients. Those that do make it in through the Kremlin walls are subject to laboratory tests before being processed into food. Whereas Kurpradit cooks for the Obamas day in day out, depending on a staff of nine and a cast of volunteers when state events are on schedule, Rigaud, with a staff of about 80, is charged with catering for banquets, receptions and state dinners, but no personal work. At the Kremlin, each meal consists of an ever changing yet fixed array of six dishes.
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As discreet as Kurpradit, Rigaud quietly allows that president Medvedev "likes fish." Angela Merkel's executive chef releases the information that the German chancellor enjoys "the food of the Berlin region." Warming to his task, Vaussion, who has worked at the Elysée Palace for 39 years despite, like Krupradit, appearing not much older than his years of his service, permits himself to say that the Sarkozy couple enjoy "fish and white meats, in light sauces."
Only Christian Garcia, executive chef to His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco, is more expansive. "I'm lucky to work for a really gourmet prince, who appreciates every cuisine. I'm lucky that he loves fine food, and loves talking about food," Garcia says.
Albert, according to Garcia, is often in the kitchen or on the phone to discuss everything from daily meals to state dinners and even to gossip about what he liked and didn't like on trips abroad. Charlene, Monaco's new princess, enjoys coming to the kitchen and trying her hand at cooking alongside the team of four who are charged with preparing food for the princely couple.
Like to Michelle Obama, Prince Albert grows his own organic vegetables at his summer home and produces his own cheeses, brought daily to the Palace. Garcia also enjoys buying special products from local artisans who offer sometimes a single formed cheese or 2 kilos of fresh garden peas to the prince's kitchen.
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In 2007, Albert hosted the Chefs of Chiefs at the Prince's Palace. Since then, he has taken to making surprise visits to the chefs when travelling around the world.
Garcia exuberantly related the astonishment of South African President Jacob Zuma when Albert and Charlene, on their honeymoon last summer, greeted his personal chef as an old friend.
The lunch in Jerusalem consisted of a rapidly served blast of dishes including an haute cuisine iteration of Israel's classic hummous with meat, polenta and truffles, seared drumfish and grouper fished at Jaffa port brief hours before, trays of meat and fish tartars and sweetbreads— followed by an array of eight desserts. Typical of Machaneyuda's cuisine, the meal was a wild ride of local ingredients infused, in the words of Vaussion, with "spices, aromas and color," served up with raucous blasts of Balkan music.
Asked if he'd enjoy being chef to a head of state, Yossi Elad, one of three chefs at the freewheeling Machaneyuda, replied "Never! Ever! Ever! Are you kidding me?"
Shalom Kadosh, the Israeli host of this year's Tour des Chefs des Chefs— next year, Germany— is a legendary chef in a nation in which the chief of state has no chef, possibly a residue of Israel's austere beginnings. For him, the tour is about much more than food or hanging out with friends. "These people have the ear of their chiefs," he says. "I'm sure they'll go home and tell their bosses Israel is much more than soldiers on street corners and the tanks you see on TV."
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