As executive chef, Jason Larkin does a little bit of everything. He plans menus, cooks, mixes drinks, manages staff and maintains the collections of china, engraved silver, gold-rimmed crystal and damask linens for State Department events with foreign dignitaries. Do you obsess over keeping glass rings off your end tables? Try preventing spills on antiques valued at $150 million, or the desk where the Treaty of Paris was signed. Find it tricky to plan a dinner menu around a few guests’ allergies? Larkin creates cuisine that adheres to the dietary restrictions of countless international guests.
Tell us about your path to the State Department.
Jason Larkin: After attending L’Academie de Cuisine and completing an internship at the Inn at Little Washington, I met a fellow classmate doing an internship at the Blair House, the guest residence used by the White House for visiting world leaders. I started working there in September 2001, the same week as the terror attacks. Afterward, we were extremely busy with official visits, and I was eventually hired as the assistant chef. When Condoleezza Rice decided to retire, I was brought on as the new chef for Secretary Clinton.
What is most rewarding about your role? How about most challenging?
JL: I enjoy working with amazing American artisanal food producers and showcasing their wares to the dignified guests of the Secretary. I travel as much as possible to meet them and put a “face” on the State Department, and also host winemakers. Most challenging is working with tight timeframes and constantly changing schedules, and creating menus that address a wide range of religious, cultural and other dietary restrictions.
You’ve implemented an all-American beverage program, including wines from the Vino50 portfolio [run by Andrew Stover, a Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 selection in 2015], spirits like Railean, a 100% agave-based offering from Texas, coffee from Puerto Rico and Hawaii, tea from South Carolina and flavored syrups from Sonoma. Why is this important to you?
JL: In my travels, I was constantly meeting these artisan producers, and it excites me to think that we could showcase these products to foreign dignitaries. And I like to think that Thomas Jefferson would approve that we are serving wines locally grown and produced [including Linden Vineyards and Barboursville] for diplomatic purposes—that was something that he dreamed of, but never realized in his lifetime.
What’s the most memorable beverage you have served at at a State Department function?
JL: A dry cider with a Champagne-like quality from Albemarle Cider Works we served during the 40th anniversary of the Diplomatic Reception rooms. It’s made with the Albemarle Pippin apple, a legendary central Virginia fruit first [brought] to England by Benjamin Franklin that became Queen Victoria’s favorite apple when American ambassador Andrew Stevenson gave her a basketful. Thomas Jefferson also grew large quantities at Monticello.
You have served as executive chef for Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry. What can you tell us about their favorite food or drinks?
JL: I’ve never seen anyone able to handle hot peppers like Secretary Clinton, and she definitely has a fondness for spicy Indian food, too. She used to ask me to share recipes of my dishes with her, which was difficult as I tend to use recipes as a guideline. One of her favorite wines is the Wölffer Estate rosé from New York, which she enjoyed on the patio with her mother [Dorothy Rodham]. Secretary Kerry’s tastes lean toward Cajun food, especially gumbo. And in between his frequent traveling, he can often be found dining in front of the fireplace on the seventh floor, with his dog at his feet.
Entertaining Tips from Jason Larkin
World leaders and stringent protocol aside, Larkin runs his kitchen much like a home cook. “We do almost everything ourselves and source most of our ingredients from local vendors, sometimes even the farmers’ market,” he says. His tips for stress-free entertaining:
- Design menus where most components can be prepared in advance. “This is key to not being completely frazzled the day of the event.”
- Never try out a new recipe on your guests. Test it out ahead of time and see if it needs to be tweaked.
- Never shop and prep on the same day. “Take a day to methodically gather all ingredients and organize them, then form a plan of action for prep.”
- Read through the recipes entirely before tackling the dishes. Take a moment to see what can be made ahead of time.
- Use an ice chest as extra refrigeration for items you don’t need that night.
- Finish prep at least one hour before your party. “This will ensure that you are not running around like a crazy person as guests arrive.”
Rosemary & Meyer Lemon French 75
Courtesy Jason Larkin, executive chef, U.S. Department of State
Larkin likes to incorporate elements, dishes and drinks native to the international guests that the Secretary hosts. This variation on the French 75, created for a French state lunch, uses rosemary grown in pots on the State Department’s eighth-floor patio. If you can’t find the Sonoma Syrup, use a vegetable peeler to remove several large lemon-peel strips, and simmer the peels and rosemary in simple syrup.
2½ ounces gin
1½ ounces rosemary-infused Meyer lemon syrup (see below)
Juice from 1 Meyer lemon (may substitute a regular lemon)
Chilled Brut Champagne, or other dry sparkling wine
Rosemary sprig or lemon twist, (for garnish)
Add the gin, infused syrup and lemon juice to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake until well chilled. Strain into Champagne flutes, top with sparkling wine and garnish with the rosemary sprig or lemon twist. Serves 2.
Rosemary-infused Meyer lemon syrup:
1 (12.7-ounce) bottle of Meyer lemon syrup (like Sonoma Syrup Co.’s Meyer Lemon Simple Syrup)
3–4 rosemary sprigs
Heat ingredients gently over low heat. Remove from heat and allow the rosemary to steep for 15 minutes. Strain and store in the refrigerator.