American Chefs Turned Diplomats: Can Food Grease International Relations?

The American Chef Corps banks on the idea that the love for good food creates important common ground.

Richard Blais, winner of Bravo's Top Chef All-Stars, is one of the chefs involved with the American Chef Corps. (Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

The U.S. State Department knows that if there’s anyone poised to successfully butter up foreign diplomats and heads of state, while introducing America through the story of our food, it’s our nation’s finest chefs. And on Friday night, Capricia Penavic Marshall, Chief of Protocol of the United States, launched the American Chef Corps, the department’s new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership.

“Food matters,” says Marshall.

Which is why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her staff are forging a partnership with the James Beard Foundation, tapping 90 prominent U.S. chefs to put on their new State Department-issued navy-blue jackets and diplomatic toques when called upon.

MORE: Empty Belly Diplomacy: North Korean Embassies Beg for Food

Chefs include José Andrés, Dan Barber, Andrea Reusing, Rick Bayless, Susan Spicer, Barton Seaver, Bryan Voltaggio, Michel Nischan, Rick Moonen, Richard Blais and many more.

“Breaking bread together is the oldest idea of diplomacy,” Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, tells TakePart. “It makes sense this is acknowledged and cultivated by the State Department. Even the simplest conversations can be deeper and go further around the dinner table than they can around the conference table.”

Indeed, chefs might be asked to meet with an embassy, oversee a meal shared between American and foreign leaders, speak at events, and promote U.S. cooking and food products abroad and at home.

The chefs are doing so, not only out of the goodness of their USA-loving hearts, but out of their own wallets as well.

“The food ambassadors are unpaid emissaries who donate their time and effort,” writes Tom Sietsema in The Washington Post. So when Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella planned a trip for Greece and Turkey, he added embassy stops and other diplomatic meetings to his agenda at the request of the State Department.

It’s not the first time the State Department has tapped prominent chefs to ease potentially difficult diplomatic talks.

“Last February, Marshall had called upon Chef Ming Tsai to craft a luncheon for the visiting Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, reasoning that the chef's signature ‘East-West’ cooking style would set a welcoming tone for the potentially tense conversations between President Obama and the expected next leader,” writes Kat Kinsman for Eatocracy. “Not only was Xi impressed by Tsai's soy-marinated Alaskan butterfish and shiitake-leek spring rolls—he was honored that the chef had taken the time to fly in and prepare it for him, and that a foreign government would show that level of cultural awareness and respect.”

Armed with artisanal hams, craft beers, and great American cheese, chefs are on call for diplomatic duty—what better way to promote mutual understanding and peace.

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