Presidential Food: Hail to the Chef

Presidential Food: A taste of South Carolina in DC during inaugural celebrations

When Pano Stathakis was asked to cook presidential food 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 presidential food such as 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 to presidential food!

Inauguration Level Recipes:

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 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 to make Presidential Food

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 working timeline. “Then through the next 72 hours, until that last event … constantly you will be working,” Stathakis said.

The result was truly presidential food deserving of a place in history.  E

Check out these recipes for Presidential Foods and get cooking!

presidential food

Smoked Dill-dijon Salmon

Crafting a flavorful filet


2 cups wood chips

1 tablespoon dry dill

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons Dijon Mustard

½ teaspoon kosher salt course

1 (1½-pound) salmon fillet

Cooking spray


Soak wood chips in water 30 minutes; drain (photo 1).

Remove extra bones with needle nose pliers (photo 2).

Combine dill, juice, mustard, and salt, stirring well.

Place salmon, skin side down, in a shallow baking dish; brush mustard mixture over salmon (photo 3).

Prepare the electric smoker, heat. Maintain temperature at 200° to 225°. Place wood chips in the electric grill. Coat grill rack with cooking spray.

Place salmon, skin side down, close door (photo 4).

Cook 2 hours or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork (photo 5).

presidential foodpresidential food


presidential food

Inaugural Desserts to go with Presidential Food

Strawberry & coconut bites, bourbon chocolate balls & wedding cookies

Strawberry & coconut delight bites


14 oz sweetened flaked coconut

2½ cups finely chopped nuts (such as walnuts)

1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)

1 box strawberry gelatin

2 jars red sugar crystals

1 jar green sugar crystals


In a medium bowl, combine milk, coconut, nuts, and gelatin powder, mixing well.

Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours.

Remove and form teaspoonful amounts into strawberry shapes.

Roll in red sugar. Roll green sugar on the end of each strawberry as a stem.

Store in refrigerator. Makes about three dozen.

Maker’s Mark bourbon chocolate balls


11 oz box Nilla wafers chopped

1 lb. walnuts chopped medium fine

2 tbsp of Hershey’s Cocoa Special Dark

2 tbsp chocolate Nesquick

¼ cup bourbon

1 cup of powdered sugar

2 sticks of margarine

1 lb. of melted semi-sweet chocolate chips


Mix the butter and sugar; fold in the chopped wafers and nuts. Form into ¾- inch balls and refrigerate overnight.

Line a tray with waxed paper. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over just-barely simmering water, stirring frequently and scraping down the sides with a rubber spatula to avoid scorching.

Roll the balls in the melted chocolate to coat; arrange on the prepared tray. Store in refrigerator until serving.

Kourabiedes wedding cookies


1 lb.  sweet butter

½ cups powdered sugar

1 egg yolk

1 shot ouzo

1 teaspoon baking powder

8 tablespoons toasted almonds, (chopped fine)

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 cups all purpose, sifted flour

3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar


Beat butter and sugar until creamy, about 15 minutes. Add egg yolk, vanilla flavoring,  and ouzo. Add the flour with the baking powder and beat for 15 minutes. Then add the chopped almonds and blend well.

Remove dough from the mixer and pinch off dough and shape in various designs, crescent, round, etc.

Place cookies 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet or parchment paper and bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until very lightly browned. Allow to cool slightly before removing from baking sheet. Carefully place on a flat surface that has been sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, then sprinkle sugar on top of the entire cookies.

presidential food

Shrimp & Grits

A Southern staple turned Presidential Food



1 cup Colonial Mill yellow grits

3 cups chicken stock

1 tsp salt

8 oz. cream cheese

½ cup heavy cream

½ stick of butter


In a medium stock pot, add chicken stock and salt and bring to boil on medium-high heat, whisk in grits and turn down to medium-low, cover, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes.

Add cream cheese, heavy cream and butter. Set aside.

Shrimp sauce


3 strips bacon

½ sweet onion diced

½ red pepper diced

4 tbsp all purpose flour

2 tbsp butter

1 cup of beer or white wine

½ cup cream

Salt and ground pepper to taste

1 lb large fresh peeled SC shrimp

½ cup diced fresh tomatoes

Finely chopped parsley.


Render bacon on medium-high heat in a big sauté pan — drain half of the grease — save bacon to crumble on top.

Add butter to pan and sauté onion and peppers about 3-4 minutes.

Whisk in flour, stirring constantly to make a roux to a nutty brown color.

Whisk in wine or beer and cream and bring to a good simmer. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add raw shrimp and cook until the shrimp are pink and done, about 3-5 minutes. Don’t overcook them!

Spoon grits into serving dish.

Ladle shrimp sauce over grits and crumble bacon, diced tomatoes and a little parsley on top.


By Phil Randall
Photography by Josh Norris

Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Inaugural Address, check out the White House website.


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