Move over, all you Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger wanna-bes. Here come Chicago’s Rick Bayless, Tony Mantuano and Art Smith, along with 87 other renowned chefs, willing to perform a little kitchen diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. They are members of the American Chef Corps, part of a new program known as the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. Their mission? To help strengthen the State Department’s “formal diplomatic engagements with foreign leaders” and “foster cross-cultural exchange” between the United States and the rest of the world, according to government press release.
“Food matters. Food matters to everyone,’’ U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall told a crowd of chefs, diplomats, government officials, food journalists and food industry representatives gathered Sept. 7 for the formal kick-off of the program in the tony Diplomatic Reception Rooms on the eighth floor of the State Department.
It was an event where a perfect head of leaf lettuce used as a centerpiece could shyly preen amid marbleized columns and a gallery’s worth of paintings by the likes of Gilbert Stuart, Benjamin West and Charles Willson Peale and still not look out of place. Guests mingled among some of the finest art, furnishings and decorative items from the early days of the Republic as they sampled some of the best food and drink of today: Artisan cheeses and charcuterie; hot chocolate made in a style the Founding Fathers( and mothers) would have recognized; craft beers and boutique wines; tastings of dishes made by some of the chefs who were involved in the partnership program.
The program, developed in partnership with the culinary-focused James Beard Foundation, seeks to “incorporate food, hospitality and the dining experience” into the nation’s diplomatic strategy around the globe. Guests and chefs alike talked about what role food could play.
“I want to assist in bridging the gaps between cultures,’’ said Bayless, who wondered aloud about how much the United Nations might be able to accomplish if all its meetings took place around the dinner table.
The restaurateur behind Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco, who is also a cookbook author and television cooking show star, is not sure what his first official assignment will be for the partnership. But he certainly played a role on the world stage before. It was he who served as guest chef for the second state dinner of the Obama Administration, in May 2010, for Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The meal was highly praised; he’s remained in contact with Mexican officials ever since.
Now, Bayless is slated to receive the highest honor awarded to foreigners by the Mexican government, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, on Sept. 19 in Washington. The order is being given, Bayless said, for work contributing to the understanding of Mexican food outside the country.
Smith, owner of Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two does know his assignment. He’ll be creating a meal for the partnership during a visit to Israel planned for the spring.
“Food is sacred,” said Smith, who stood near the center of the huge Benjamin Franklin Room dishing up plates of roasted faro salad and smoked Carolina swordfish. Food, he added, transcends gender, religion and politics.
“Good food is something we all can appreciate,’’ said Smith, who came to national prominence as chef to Oprah Winfrey.
Echoing Smith’s sentiments was Chicagoan Sam Kass, the White House assistant chef and senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives. He told the crowd that chefs – and grandmothers – were the ones with the food knowledge to pass on.
Kass stood on the podium in a navy blue chef’s jacket emblazoned with the State Department seal. He, Bayless and Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, were all among the 2012 Class of “State Chefs” introduced during the reception. They were honored for past efforts involving food and diplomacy.
“This is an important moment,” Kass said. “We’re here because there is a fundamental truth. Everyone eats and food brings us together.”
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