Unless you live under a rock, you're aware that the first couple recently visited Asheville. The culinary-minded were curious to see which restaurants the Obamas would choose during their trip — and they didn't need to wait long. President Obama and the first lady had barely landed in Asheville before they and their entourage made a beeline for 12 Bones in the River Arts District. Barry had dined there during his first tour of Asheville, when he was still deep in the midst of his presidential campaign.
Local GFE emcee Michael Capra, who also goes by the name of Foul Mouth Jerk, was next in line to order his ribs at the beloved barbecue joint, when a Secret Service agent informed him that the president of the United States was going to have to cut in front of him in line. Capra wasn't sure whether to believe the man — or whether he wanted to put any distance between himself and a rack of those ribs — even for the leader of the free world.
"But when the president and Michelle Obama walked in, I totally folded," says Capra. "Then the president looked at me, and he looked at the rest of the line, and he said, 'These guys look like they've been waiting in line all day. I'll go to the back of the line like everyone else.' And that's what he did. I was a little bit impressed, I won't lie."
When Michelle asked him what was good at the restaurant, Capra recommended the blueberry-chipotle ribs — the dish that the president ended up ordering. "I don't want to say because I told him to order it, I'm just saying — he did get what I suggested," says Capra. "I'm pretty sure that, by law, that makes me a member of the cabinet."
12 Bones owner Thomas Montgomery maintains that the whole episode was surprisingly business-as-usual. "They were just having a good time, having some lunch. If it hadn't have been for the 30 or 40 support staff with him, you probably wouldn't have even known the difference."
Montgomery says that, although the restaurant staff wasn't officially notified of the president's arrival until minutes before he walked through the doors, there were some clues — namely in the form of 20-odd Secret Service employees that showed up to dine throughout the week.
After counting 14 Secret Service workers on Thursday afternoon, Montgomery called a staff meeting to discuss the imminent potential debacle. "We had the building locked down except for the front two doors, storage units closed up, to protect ourselves from what could be a pretty major circus," Montgomery says, acknowledging that his staff "knew the drill already" after Obama's first visit.
Regardless, there's a lot of difference between a presidential-hopeful and the actual president. Wasn't the staff slightly nervous? "We've got a pretty calm crew," Montgomery says, in his even Southern drawl. "If you've ever seen the environment that takes place in here during a Friday lunch, you kinda gotta be calm anyhow, or else you won't last a week."
The Obamas dined several times at the Grove Park Inn, the historic resort where they spent their weekend. The GPI's executive chef Denny Trantham found the Obamas to be "down-to-earth, relaxed and appreciative." According to Trantham, the first lady was intrigued by the local food scene and the farm-to-table concept employed by the Grove Park's restaurants.
At the conclusion of the meal, says Tratham, Obama requested that the culinary staff come out to his table for recognition. "It was quite an honor for myself and each and every one of my culinary brigade," Tratham says. "These guys did an excellent job."
Trantham admits to a small bit of anxiety in his interactions with the Obamas. "It's no pressure at all cooking for the president, you know, whatsoever," says Trantham, laughing. "Your heart's in your stomach, you're nervous — just trying to stay on point to answer his questions and make sure that the evening is flowing smooth."
Tratham wouldn't reveal precisely what the first couple ate – except to mention that the Obamas nibbled an amuse bouche that incorporated ramps — but he did say the menu included local items like Sunburst Farms trout, Three Graces cheeses, Carolina Organic Farms radishes and lettuces from Jolley Farms in Canton.
On Saturday, the Obamas ventured out to the Corner Kitchen in the Biltmore Village, where they dined in a private room with two other couples. The President's reservation, incidentally, was made by a man pretending to need a private space where he could propose to his girlfriend, according to owner Kevin Westmoreland.
Westmoreland decided to offer rental of the room for half price to the proposing man as a gift — only to find out later he had offered a deal to the president of the United States.
Westmoreland says that the evening turned out to be fairly relaxed, even with the legion of Secret Service men outside and White House staffers dining at the bar. The kitchen, it seems, might have had its work cut out for it, especially in the way of maintaining composure.
Secret Service members buzzed about the kitchen, tasting items to make sure they were safe, and scrutinizing every move the kitchen staff made. "They were literally standing over the plates as they were being plated for the president and his wife, so that was a little bit nerve-wracking, I'm sure," says Westmoreland. "But everyone was very calm."
Westmoreland says that, when sous chef Joshua Weeks was asked which special items he planned to prepare,Weeks indicated that the regular menu should be up to the Obamas' standards. "We didn't concoct anything unusual … which was great, because you and I could walk in there and get the same thing the President ate," says Westmoreland. On the menu for the Obamas? The President had macadamia-nut pesto mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa, and the first lady had lobster tacos with black bean-corn salsa and jicama carrot slaw.
Prior to the first couple's arrival in Asheville, Westmoreland says that the White House advance team dined at the Corner Kitchen, and co-owner Joe Scully asked for their assessment. "They said 'It was great! We have to tell the boss about this place.' That was great for him to hear, because it meant that they had actually tried the food," Westmoreland says.
The Obamas' evaluation of the evening? "I wouldn't expect him to say anything differently, but he did say that he enjoyed everything," says Westmoreland, adding that the president went out of his way to thank the kitchen personally. "He said, 'Guys, I really loved it — and I'm not just saying that. We really appreciate your taking care of us and being so hospitable.'"
Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org