WASHINGTON (AP) — Actor Angelina Jolie, home improvement duo Chip and Joanna Gaines and Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim headlined the list of big names from politics, business, sports and entertainment glamming up a fancy black-tie dinner that President Joe Biden hosted Wednesday for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.
Broadway’s Lea Salonga, one of the night’s entertainers, confessed as she arrived that she was “freaking out” over the whole experience, allowing, “It feels like being in the middle of a fairy tale.” Kim, for her part, served up a classic understatement as she strolled in, telling reporters, ”I heard the food’s going to be very good.” Jolie wasn’t inclined to chat as she arrived in a vintage Chanel jacket and a flowing cream gown, but her date, 21-year-old son Maddox, at least offered that his favorite thing about Seoul was “the people.”
A smattering of politicians made the guest list, too, and most were determinedly on message, talking a lot of shop. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., held forth on infrastructure, debt reduction and the budget. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., talked abortion rights. Former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, a big Democratic donor from Illinois, talked up plans for the Democratic convention in Chicago in 2024, promising, “of course” it will go well.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, proudly showed off her traditional hanbok gown, saying it was important to showcase cultural diversity. She added that the big challenge was “not to trip over it.”
Also among the nearly 200 guests were Arthur Blank, a co-founder of Home Depot; “Pachinko” author Min Jin Lee; and former Major League Baseball pitcher Chan Ho Park. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah also attended, as did the governors of Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont.
On a perfect spring evening, guests entered the White House by strolling through the Jacqueline Kennedy garden in the East Wing and being directed to a cocktail reception before dinner in the East Room, where tables were topped with towering centerpieces of cherry tree boughs in full bloom. On the menu: crabcakes, beef ribs and banana splits.
While most guests were strolling in through the garden, Biden and wife Jill welcomed Yoon and wife Kim Keon Hee on a red carpet on the steps of the North Portico, where the president flashed a thumbs-up for the assembled cameras. Kim wore a cream-colored jacket over her gown, which was also creamy. Jill Biden wore a mauve sheath gown by Reem Acra.
In their toasts before dinner, President Biden said he believed Yoon’s visit had “brought two nations even closer together.”
Yoon, for his part, nodded to Biden’s Irish heritage and love of Irish poets.
“There’s an old saying, and Mr. President, this one is also Irish, that goes: A good friend is like a four-leaf clover, hard to find and lucky to have,” Yoon said, offering a toast to our “ironclad alliance.”
Guests seated at the head table with the presidents and first ladies included Jolie and her son, the Gaineses, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Chloe Kim.
The first lady, who oversaw planning for the administration’s second state dinner, recruited Korean American celebrity chef Edward Lee to whip up a Korean-inspired menu. Lee is known for putting his Korean stamp on American food.
“It’s not traditional Korean food but just gives you a little hint of Korean flavors,” he said this week as the White House previewed the dinner setup.
The crabcake appetizer was served with a cabbage, kohlrabi, fennel and cucumber slaw dressed with a vinaigrette made using gochujang, a red chili paste and a bowl of chilled yellow squash soup. The braised beef short rib main course was paired with sorghum-glazed carrots and served on a bed of grits made from butter beans instead of corn.
Dessert is a deconstructed banana split, an American classic, featuring lemon bar ice cream, caramelized bananas, fresh berries and mint ginger snap cookie crumble drizzled with a caramel sauce infused with doenjang, a fermented soybean paste.
Guests were ushered to the State Dining Room at the other end of the State Floor after dinner for entertainment by Broadway stars Salonga, Norm Lewis and Jessica Vosk.
Lewis, for all his experience, said he still gets nervous performing at big events.
“Oh God, always nerves,” he said. “But you know what? It’s for a good cause and I’m very excited to be here.” He sang ”This is the Moment” from “Jekyll and Hyde.” Yoon got in on the action, singing a rendition of “American Pie,” one of his favorite songs, to raucous applause.
Biden then surprised Yoon with the gift of a guitar signed by Don McLean, who wrote “American Pie.”
One guest who displayed not one ounce of nerves: Schumer, D-N.Y., who wore a navy business suit rather than a tuxedo, and shrugged, “This is as tux-ey as I get.”
Chip Gaines demurred when asked if he had any decorating tips for the White House, but added that for wife Joanna, “the white interior and exterior is just her thing.” Joanna Gaines’ mother is Korean.
A state visit, including an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn and a sparkly state dinner, is the highest diplomatic honor the U.S. bestows on its closest allies. Yoon was visiting as the U.S. and South Korea mark the 70th year of an alliance that began at the end of the Korean War and committed the U.S. to help South Korea defend itself, particularly from North Korea. Approximately 28,500 U.S. troops are currently based in South Korea.
Biden’s first invitation for a state visit went to France last year and President Emmanuel Macron was toasted at a black-tie dinner last December with more than 300 guests inside a heated pavilion erected on the south grounds of the White House.