Army of US chefs to spread diplomacy

2012-09-12 11:02
Chefs make dishes in the Benjamin Franklin room at the Department of State in Washington, DC, during the gathering of the newly-created American Chef Corps. (Jewel Samad, AFP)

Chefs make dishes in the Benjamin Franklin room at the Department of State in Washington, DC, during the gathering of the newly-created American Chef Corps. (Jewel Samad, AFP)

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Washington - Armed with sharp knives and chopping boards, a new army of US diplomats is to begin navigating rough global waters. But they will more likely have mouths watering, than leave a sour taste behind.

In her latest example of what she calls "smart power", the top US diplomat Hillary Clinton has recruited some of America's top chefs to help in her quest to spread US diplomacy and values around the world.

More than 50 of the nation's finest culinary wizards, many of whom are household names across the United States, have signed up to join The American Chef Corps, newly launched at the State Department.

It is a first for the United States, which while it has often been accused by its opponents of seeking world dominance, is rarely charged with trying to butter up other nations with its fine cuisine.

"Unfortunately what most countries know about us is the fast food industry... but there is this most wonderful American culinary story just dying to be told," Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall said.

When Clinton, the former first lady, first arrived at the State Department in 2009 as the new secretary of state "food was so second, tertiary" to the serious talks taking place every day, said Marshall.

Cross-cultural exchanges

"We started to chew on how can we engage further with our dinners, luncheon," she said. "Why aren't we inviting that in as part of the experience? Let's use that as a diplomatic tool."

As chief of protocol, Marshall's office oversees the lavish dinners and lunches laid on for visiting dignitaries. While donning their aprons to whip up a delicious meal, the new chefs corps will also help foster cross-cultural exchanges between the United States and other nations.

"The first sign of welcome when you walk into somebody's house is they give you something to eat, a little snack. Automatically your guard is dropped, you feel welcome," said pastry chef Duff Goldman, who has taken cake decorating to a whole new level.

"If people are coming to this country, and they sit down and I come out with a tray of cupcakes, 'Hey I got cupcakes I made in the colour of your flag', how cool is that?

"I feel welcome, I feel relaxed, progress will be made. If you just walk into a room and bring on clip boards, and turn on laptops it's so impersonal and cold."

Goldman - who has become a hit star of the reality TV show Ace of Cakes featuring his own Baltimore-based bakery - will undertake his first diplomatic mission to Bogota, icing a huge cake outside in front of around 6 000 people.

American historical menu

"You cook a meal and it's a way to send a message," agreed top chef Jose Andres, who moved to the US capital from Spain 20 years ago.

Most recently, Andres was asked to prepare a dinner for new French President Francois Hollande and his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, during their first visit to the White House in May.

Andres, who is the owner of seven restaurants around the Washington area and suburbs, said he created "an American historical menu", delving into his vast library of cookbooks.

From the 1931 Joy of Cooking, the first edition of what has become one of America's most-published cookbooks, he whipped up an appetizer of shrimp with grapefruit with French dressing, served with a milk punch cocktail devised by Benjamin Franklin, a recipe dating back to the 1770s.

This was followed by a gazpacho from the first book of American recipes The Virginia House-wife published in 1825 by Mary Randolph.

"She travelled around Europe when she was young, and she took many recipes from around Europe, French, Italian, and so she incorporated them into her book," Andres said.

Time donated freely

"And one of the recipes was gazpacho, so you could argue that gazpacho is actually genuinely American," he laughed.

"Food isn't traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but I think it's the oldest diplomatic tool," Clinton said in a taped address to the launch of the new diplomatic initiative.

"Sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries, and build bridges in a way that nothing else can. Certainly some of the most meaningful conversations I've had with my counterparts around the world have taken place at breakfasts, lunches and dinners."

The chefs are freely donating their time to the initiative, while the State Department is partnering with food manufacturers such as Mars, and will also be aided by the New York-based James Beard Foundation, set up in 1986 in honour of Beard, a cookbook author and dean of American cuisine.

"There is so much untapped potential in the power of food," White House assistant chef and senior policy adviser, Sam Kass, said at the launch.

"It's an incredible honour, but it is also an incredible responsibility," he said, adding "this is just the very beginning, and I hope in 10 years, 20 years, this just becomes diplomacy, this is it ... This is a key component of everything."

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