We thought we were going to a small reception at the State Department. It was day 3 of the Association of Food Journalists annual conference, this year held in Washington D.C. As we stood in line to undergo the rigorous security clearances needed to enter the building (we had been asked to provide detailed identification information weeks in advance), more than one of my fellow journalists commented, "Who are all these other people? They aren't going to the same thing as us, are they?"
By the time we made it up to the Benjamin Franklin Room, we realized that this was no small reception. And while inviting food journalists certainly guaranteed that the event would be well-covered, we were hardly the guests of honor. As soon as we entered the breathtaking, chandeliered room, we understood that something much larger was happening here.
Look, there's Rick Bayless. Oh, and Jose Andres. Art Smith, Rick Moonen, White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford: Everywhere you looked was another famous chef from a different corner of the country.
It turns out that what we had actually been invited to (which, to be fair, we could have gathered if we looked closely at our invitations) was the reception to launch the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, a collaborative initiative between the U.S. State Department and the James Beard Foundation. The Partnership aims to use America's culinary talent as a means of diplomacy. To achieve this, the Department has tapped some of the country's most prominent chefs to act as part of the American Chef Corps, who have "agreed to serve as resources to the Department of State in its efforts to incorporate culinary engagement into its ongoing public diplomacy efforts." (I'm assuming the "public" in that sentence means that no chefs will be dispatched to perform undercover operations.)
The State Department's Mission Statement for the program reads:
The Diplomatic Culinary Partnerships initiative builds on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's vision of "smart power" diplomacy, which embraces the use of a full range of diplomatic tools, by utilizing food, hospitality and the dining experience as ways to enhance how formal diplomacy is conducted, cultivating cultural understanding and strengthening bilateral relationships through the shared experience of food.
During the reception, food was passed, more celebrities were spotted, and speeches were made by Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall and then, via video, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both spoke of the cultural importance of food, and the impact that eating together has on diplomacy.
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The American Chef Corps includes 87 chefs. Los Angeles is represented by Border Grill's Mary Sue Milliken.
Reception, speeches and celebrity chefs aside, it's interesting to see how the public's culinary obsession is seeping past reality television and into more serious realms, even extending to world politics. It will be worth watching to see whether this initiative will go beyond fancy dinners and to the heart of what our chefs know about culture, food, and its ability to forge understanding.
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