Hail to the Chef

Bringing a taste of South Carolina to DC during inaugural celebrations

By Phil Randall
Photography by Josh Norris

When Pano Stathakis was asked to cook for two special events in Washington, D.C., during the 58th Presidential Inauguration, he knew what to do and who could help him fill this request: bring the flavor of South Carolina to the nation’s capital.

Stathakis collaborated once more with caterer Molly Perry for a Thursday night dinner that preceded the South Carolina Presidential Inaugural Ball and a Friday “Mimosa Morning” brunch during the inauguration of Donald Trump. The menus included smoked, Greek, and poached salmon as well as a shrimp-and-grits recipe based on a favorite of Perry’s grandmother. Other traditional favorites (with ruffles and flourishes fit for a president) included ham on fresh biscuits, open-faced tomato sandwiches with a mayonnaise-pesto sauce, and mimosas.

The dinner preceded the South Carolina Presidential Inaugural Ball, while the brunch provided a friendly get-together only two blocks from the U.S. Capitol for attendees who preferred to watch big-screen views of the ceremony with friends and without the chilly Washington weather. The events were hosted by The Palladian Group and McMullen Public Affairs.

Stathakis and Perry allowed Elysian staff members to sample several of the dishes and desserts they served in D.C., and the vote was unanimous: share these chefs’ secrets!

Poached Salmon

The goal was to make a 12- to 15-pound salmon into a grand presentation. Preparing poached salmon takes about five hours of work, but the secret is first to cool the salmon. Stathakis slow-simmered the whole fish just below boiling until its internal temperature was at least 140 degrees, assuring it was safely cooked. It simmered in water containing kosher salt, dill, salmon seasoning, carrots, lemons, limes, oranges, parsley, and a pickling spice that included bay leaves and coriander. “There is no perfect science to cooking this,” Stathakis said. “It’s a lot about how you want it to feel and taste.”

Cooling the salmon for a day after poaching helped him pull the skin, remove the fat from the salmon and then decorate it with cucumbers, capers, eggs, and other ingredients. “Basically, it becomes a work of art.”

Smoked Salmon

The goal was to provide two alternative versions of salmon: a Greek version and another flavored with citrus seasoning and a dill mustard sauce.

The first secret: inspect your fish. Stathakis said he is careful about his suppliers (“have a good fishmonger”), and then he inspects the fish to make sure it is fresh, and the skin is smooth and healthy. Even if it has been carefully filleted by his supplier, Stathakis runs his fingers over the pink side of the fillet, feeling for any tiny bones, which he removes with needle-nose pliers.

The second secret: use an electric smoker. Stathakis said an electric smoker with temperature control and a timer makes the smoking process nearly foolproof — a big plus when you are preparing a high-profile meal for 100 distinguished guests at a presidential inauguration party. “A lot of barbecue people or smoker people would say, ‘Nah, he’s cheating,’” Stathakis said. But that doesn’t bother him. “I’ve got a lot of things going on at once.”

Stathakis advised using hickory, apple, or cherry wood chips for salmon. The wood chips are available at Lowe’s or even Academy Sports + Outdoors. Only one or two handfuls are used, and the chips are soaked for half an hour before being put into the machine. In this case, he used hickory.

Shrimp and grits

Perry drew inspiration from her grandmother’s “breakfast shrimp,” which her “MaMa” Betty Long learned to cook while growing up on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. “They actually ate fish and shrimp and grits for breakfast,” Perry said. Her grandmother became a fantastic cook who wrote and self-published a cookbook, “Baking with Betty,” and gave away almost 1,000 copies. Perry took her MaMa’s classic recipe, “fancied it up a little,” and prepared it for the inauguration.

The secret is local, fresh ingredients. Perry buys her stone-ground grits from Colonial Milling Co. in Pauline, South Carolina, and their 1790 Hickory King Yellow Grits are available online at www.colonialmilling.com and several area stores. The mill uses non-GMO corn from heirloom seeds that the Stauffer family grows on its 18th-century plantation. “There is no comparison” to supermarket grits, she said.

Perry, whose father taught her how to fish and catch shrimp when she was growing up in Charleston, uses shrimp fresh from Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Local, fresh ingredients make a difference, she said. “I like to see where my food is made. … Anytime I can, I try to get to a farmer’s market.”

Getting ready

Both Stathakis and Perry, who had collaborated previously on special events, said preparing for something like the 2017 Presidential Inauguration means many long days.

Two of the challenges are not cooking in your own kitchen and not being able to take the number of staff you would have at home. For the inaugural events, Stathakis and Perry had two additional assistants. Their extensive preparation included making contingency plans in case of problems, such as an oven breaking down — which once happened to Stathakis during a dinner for 300. “You have to keep calm; you’ve got to keep people having a good time,” he said. But how do you cope with something as catastrophic as the oven quitting? “Have an open bar, that helps,” he said with a laugh.

His second tip: “Always make sure you have cold hors d’oeuvres or something cold that people can eat.”

The planning started Sunday before the inauguration with a meeting to set a work timeline. “Then through the next 72 hours, until that last event … constantly you will be working,” Stathakis said.

The results were dishes deserving a place in history.  E


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