WASHINGTON — China will get its second state dinner with President Barack Obama when its president, Xi Jinping, visits the White House Friday. The question is, how will the United States make this shindig different from the last one.
A state dinner is the glitzy finale to a state visit, a high honor usually reserved for longstanding and close U.S. allies. That makes the double honor especially unique for China, as the two nations continue to differ sharply on issues such as human rights and cybersecurity.
Then-Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the White House in 2011. The state dinner had a “quintessentially American” theme, which was requested by the Chinese delegation, and a menu that included poached Maine lobster, dry-aged ribeye steak, lemon sorbet and apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
Dinner guests including then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former President Jimmy Carter, singer Barbra Streisand, designer Vera Wang and Vogue magazine editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, sat in the front row for an evening of jazz with musicians Herbie Hancock and Chris Botti, singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves.
Decorations incorporated prints of a pheasant, the native bird of China, the country’s national color yellow, and jewel tones inspired by the work of American artist John James Audubon.
Deesha Dyer, who became White House social secretary in the spring, is likely examining everything that was done four years ago — from cuisine to decor — to figure out what the White House can do this time around.
Desiree Rogers, a former social secretary for Obama who planned more than 300 events including a state dinner for the Indian prime minister, said the goal is to “make it just as, if not more enjoyable, than the last time for the group.”
The White House works closely with the State Department for guidance on cultural dos and don’ts to personalize the experience for the guest, Rogers said.
“They really are the center,” Rogers said, referring to the guests. “The goal is to really have them be over the moon with the evening.”
Rogers said some points to consider when planning a dinner for a returning country are: If the previous meal was held indoors or outdoors, could the location be reversed? If it was held indoors, could it be moved to a different room? How can the entertainment be done differently?
Could Friday’s dinner return the spotlight on the honoree with Chinese fare and aesthetics? Or blend influences of both countries? That’s been the case for past state dinners.
A dinner last April honoring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe featured a mix of Japanese and American cuisine with Caesar sashimi salad presented in the style of a Japanese gift, Wagyu beef and an American-style cheesecake made of tofu and soymilk. “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto was brought in to help the White House kitchen staff prepare the meal.
Lea Berman, who served as White House social secretary under President George W. Bush and welcomed leaders from Australia and India, said White House events are always different even though they follow a similar format.
“Many events that are done year after year have formulas for execution,” Berman said. “There’s always a backbone or framework.”
In recent years, the state dinner has taken inspiration — and vegetables — from Mrs. Obama’s White House vegetable garden. Herbs and vegetables that are in season have been incorporated in two or three courses during the dinner. What’s growing there now includes basil, rosemary, thyme, chives, sage, parsley, figs, pumpkin, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, artichokes, sweet potatoes and zucchinis.
“Every single event at the White House is different,” Berman said. “There are a half-dozen ways to do something like a China visit. They’ll make it unique.”
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.