It’s called Gastro-Diplomacy and it’s the latest weapon deployed from the U.S. smart power arsenal.
Food isn’t traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can.
— Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
80 chefs have been inducted into the newly-formed American Chef Corps where they’ll serve as resources to the State Department. They can be called on to prepare meals for visiting dignitaries or dispatched around the globe for educational programs and cultural exchanges. The list includes big name working chefs from all over the country plus a smattering of media celebrities from the Food Network and Top Chef franchise.
For god, country, and a snazzy chef jacket
The chefs are unpaid emissaries, volunteering their time and energy to the budget-neutral initiative. Once they complete a ‘posting’ they’re anointed as State Chefs and get the official uniform of a navy jacket embroidered with the American flag and their name in gold. Other Corps costs are covered by corporate sponsors like Lenox China and the Mars candy company.
Winning hearts and minds
Culture has always been a linchpin of our public diplomacy; everything from US. pavilions at World Expos to the old episodes of Mork and Mindy that are running right now on Croatia National Television. Our culture might be our most sustainable weapon in the war on terror in its subtle but wide-ranging ability to communicate our values and shape world opinions.
Is food the jazz of our times?
In the 1950’s, America’s international standing was at a low point similar to today’s. Russia’s Cold War propaganda was winning over our allies, and segregation in the south had further tarnished our image. The State Department decided to shake things up. Rather than shipping off ballet companies and symphony orchestras, a racially blended group of American jazz musicians was sent out into the world as our cultural envoys. Benny Goodman blew his clarinet in Red Square, Dizzy Gillespie played a snake charmer with his trumpet in Pakistan, and Duke Ellington sat and smoked a hookah with the locals in Iraq. Dubbed the Jazz Ambassador Tours, they were a potent symbol of America’s freedoms, and far cooler than Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. The New York Times called the tours our ‘Secret Sonic Weapon.’
Hearts, minds, and now stomachs
This time, food replaces jazz. Of course gastro-diplomacy is nothing new—think of the state dinners the White House has used to welcome foreign dignitaries since the 19th century. From the standpoint of protocol, the dinners demonstrate respect and celebrate the diplomatic ties between nations. Underlying that is an opportunity to connect on a human level; the hope is that it fosters tolerance and understanding that will carry through to the real business of the leader’s visit.
Food is a universal experience. It’s the soul of each nation but it speaks a common language. Even Secretary Clinton, who spurned the image of the chocolate chip cookie-baking First Lady, recognizes the persuasive power of food to cross cultures and borders, bringing friends and enemies to the table.