Behind the scenes of Magpie’s top-secret lunch for the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama waves at his supporters on West Capitol steps to make a special address to the state Legislature on Monday, June 20, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.
The Dalai Lama waves at his supporters on West Capitol steps to make a special address to the state Legislature on Monday, June 20, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.

The lunch for the Dalai Lama in Sacramento on Monday – soup, salad and duck with rice – had been in the works for several months, though few people in town knew anything about it.

Magpie Cafe co-owners Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye weren’t allowed to tell anyone what they were up to after they were selected to cook for the Tibetan leader. On Monday, when the Dalai Lama was scheduled to address the joint session of the state Legislature, the Magpie team went into action. They arrived three hours earlier than normal and, all of their equipment and food were assessed by a bomb-sniffing dog before they could head to the kitchen. Staff members preparing the meal had to provide their Social Security numbers and other information for background checks.

Among the details gleaned, the Dalai Lama is not a strict vegetarian, as many would expect. And he’s an unabashed cookie lover – polishing off one of Magpie’s chocolate chip cookies in short order, then reaching for the restaurant’s famed carrot cake cookie, which is actually a cookie sandwich with cream cheese frosting in the middle.

But that second cookie may have sparked an obsession that the man in the saffron robe could not shake. Later that day at the Capitol rotunda, the Dalai Lama excused himself for a moment and sauntered over to the cookie table Magpie had laid out. He promptly grabbed a second carrot cake cookie.

Yes, the Dalai Lama can pack it away.

The lunch itself was hosted by Gov. Jerry Brown and other dignitaries.

“I thought it was fantastic,” said Roehr. “The people who were entertaining the Dalai Lama didn’t want anyone to know about his plans while he was in Sacramento, so we had to keep it under wraps. When we got to the Stanford Mansion, they swept everything with dogs and then they walked us in.”

Longtime Magpie chef Chris Woo oversaw the lunch for 11, along with a separate buffet-style offering for the Dalai Lama’s entourage and security team.

Asked if he and his team were nervous as they planned and executed the meal, Roehr said, “In the beginning, it was pretty straightforward. We were going to make nice food and we knew the Stanford Mansion has a great kitchen. It was comforting to us because we had the sense that his holiness was not going to judge us. There was some levity in that.”

The menu included a vegan bean soup with corn and oyster mushrooms in a miso broth; a salad with tomato and stone fruit with burrata; and the main entree was organic duck served with an herb sauce and a special short-grain rice. Asked about the presence of meat on the menu, Roehr said the Dalai Lama and other lamas may go meatless while at their compound in India, but they don’t impose their values on others when they dine elsewhere.

As lunch grew closer, things got more serious in the kitchen.

“When we were able to peek through the window and we saw the Dalai Lama exit the car and come into the building, it was pretty breathtaking. I don’t think I was the only one who got a little misty-eyed,” said Roehr.

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The lunch service itself went smoothly and several Magpie folks were able to interact with the Dalai Lama, whose sweet tooth did not go unnoticed.

Later, Roehr received some intel about the Magpie cookies and the Dalai Lama at the rotunda.

“Apparently, he left a group of important people to go to the cookie table and grab a carrot cake cookie,” Roehr said with a chuckle.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob