Satisfying appetites of journalists, lawmakers

When journalists and lawmakers gathered last week for the Radio and Television Congressional Correspondents’ Association dinner, they were treated to buckets of Abita brews, beignets from Café du Monde and an Emeril Lagasse-designed menu.

The organizer of this year’s dinner aimed to bring a little of the Big Easy “spirit” to D.C. with a New Orleans theme, and for the first time a celebrity chef was tapped for the annual event.

“New Orleans has really suffered a lot in the last few years, and I’m so fond of the city that this was my way of giving back,” said dinner chairman John Wallace, a Fox News Channel photographer.

Lagasse’s culinary director, Chris Wilson, who executed the menu, spoke to The Hill before the dinner about serving a large crowd, his pride for the Crescent City and why he still gets nervous after 22 years.

Q. What can you say about the menu?

A. What I did for this menu is you start with just your hardcore Louisiana ingredients and you build your dishes from there, hopefully carrying over and conveying that New Orleans theme to everybody at the dinner. It’s not a large menu, so we have only a few chances to stick in all the flavors that we want and all the representation that we want to have from Louisiana.

Q. How do you incorporate the vision of the dinner planner with your own goals?

A. It’s kind of all separate, moving parts, but they all come together and if the food is exciting and energetic then I think that translates into the staff and the mood of the room and the people as well. So it’s kind of like if you do things right from the beginning, it all just runs together and hopefully it’s contagious.

Q. How long have you worked with Lagasse?

A. I’ve been with Emeril for about 22 years, and my primary responsibility is over the culinary operations of the restaurants, so it’s just making sure that all the restaurants are running well. I do a lot of, call it “taking hurdles” out of the way of the chefs and the individual restaurants.

Q. Given the many years you’ve been with the company, what, if anything, is the most nerve-racking part of a large dinner?

A. The most nerve-racking thing is you’re not in your own backyard and you’re not working with the people you’re used to working with, so that’s probably the most nerve-racking. Now that I’ve established a relationship with the caterer, that’s a little bit easier, but you know anytime you’re doing a dinner for a large group, specifically 1,500 people, you’re putting your name and your reputation up there, and you want to put your best foot forward and do as good as you can.

Q. How do you make really good food for 1,500 people at once?

A. Well, it’s not like you’re cooking at home and it’s not like you’re cooking at a restaurant for 50 to 100 people, so you have to hold true with what you know is best and what’s going to translate best and do that on the terms of a large format.

Q. Do you feel a sense of responsibility in bringing New Orleans-style food to a new audience?

A. Oh yeah, it’s a lot of pressure. Anytime you can get in front of that many people, it’s a lot of pressure. And being the spokesperson of sorts for Louisiana and for New Orleans on this stage, it’s huge.