Since the dawn of time, humans have shared meals among families, clans, and larger communities as a way of building social bonds and breaking down barriers. People share meals in every country on earth, and food—like music and art—has the ability to transcend cultures and blur borders. It is in this tradition that nations pursue culinary diplomacy, or the use of food and meals to bridge international divides and forge peace.
Culinary diplomacy, similar but distinct from the more grassroots-oriented “gastrodiplomacy,” is an expanding subfield of public and cultural diplomacy used by countries around the world to make connections through cuisine. These countries send their best chefs to highlight their savory flavors and unique culinary techniques as well as discuss matters of food security, safety, sustainability, and hunger.
Food has long played a significant role in politics and diplomacy. It is said that the great French strategist Talleyrand once told Napoleon Bonaparte, “Give me a good chef and I shall give you good treaties.”
Today, the state dinner is the most notable form of culinary diplomacy used by countries worldwide to engage others in a formal setting. Throughout history, ancient princes of Asia and medieval European patricians alike have convened in celebration of extravagant epicurism. However, the modern state dinner tradition began in 1874 when U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant hosted King David Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii, at the White House. Ever since, India, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and many other countries have hosted foreign heads of state for lavish state dinners.
During a state dinner, protocol offices and ministries work diligently to ensure every detail is attended to properly. They examine the customs and traditions of each state to carefully craft a program that often includes military honors, musical entertainment, formal attire, a five-course meal, and speeches and toasts from the respective heads of state.
State dinners, however, are much more than a showcase of the best food and entertainment a country has to offer—and the role of the chef reaches far beyond preparing an exemplary meal. With help from protocol officers, social secretaries, and other government officials, the head chef is responsible for creating a table atmosphere that will promote fruitful official and unofficial discussions between world leaders. The food and setting have to work in concert to ensure that the interactions are sociable, friendly, and respectful of the guests’ cultural traditions.
LE CLUB DES CHEFS DES CHEFS
In 1977, Gilles Bragard, a famous couturier to chefs and luxury hotels, organized a meeting of personal chefs of heads of state at the restaurant of legendary French Chef Paul Bocuse. The chefs discussed international hospitality, cooperation, and swapped recipes. It was a great success, and the attendees wanted to meet again. Thus Le Club des Chefs des Chefs, the world’s most exclusive and prestigious culinary society, was established and now regularly assembles top chefs from around the world. The name of the club is a play-on-words, as the French word “chef” translates as both “chef” and “leader.”
Le Club des Chefs des Chefs meets annually and is hosted by a different country each year. Host governments officially recognize the meetings, and each chef is bestowed the rank of culinary ambassador and receives the diplomatic rights and privileges befitting such a title. The chefs participate in myriad culinary activities including the exchange of prominent culinary techniques and the promotion of ingredients, culinary culture, and art typical of their native lands. The chefs who participate in these meetings also raise social and political awareness for pressing international issues such as food security, food safety, and food sustainability. In 2013, Le Club des Chefs des Chefs participated in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, an annual effort launched in 2012 to end hunger worldwide and work toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The Club’s motto is, aptly, “If politics divides people, a good table always gathers them.” The first meeting of Les Club des Chefs des Chefs was hosted in Washington, D.C in 1978. U.S. President Ronald Reagan received the first group of personal chefs of heads of state. Subsequently, Presidents Clinton and Obama have also received the group in Washington. The chefs have been received in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Ottawa, Monaco, Rome, Moscow, and dozens of other countries around the world. Today, Le Club des Chefs des Chefs has over 20 members from each corner of the world.
CULINARY DIPLOMACY TODAY
Today, the use of cooking and food as a tool of diplomacy expands beyond state dinners and Le Club des Chefs des Chefs. The Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California tracks instances of culinary diplomacy all over the world, such as the recent Harlem/Havana festival in New York City, which celebrates the shared cultural history previously put on hold by the lengthy U.S. embargo that lasted over half a century.
Many countries around the world devote a substantial amount funding to formal campaigns to share their cuisine and culinary expertise. Countries like Thailand, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Malaysia, Peru, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia have all made culinary diplomacy a principled mechanism of their diplomatic missions.
Culinary diplomacy is now taught as an emerging area of international relations. A number of culinary partnerships have been established, including the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership at the U.S. Department of State, which recruits over 80 food professionals from across the United States to cook for foreign diplomats and travel abroad in an official capacity.
Fascinatingly, food has also been utilized as an advocacy tool to raise awareness about issues such as conflict zones. For example, Professor Johanna Mendelson Forman, at American University’s School of International Service, created the Conflict Cuisine series that examines the nexus of food and war. Similarly, Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant based in Pittsburgh that only serves food from places where the United States is currently engaged in conflict. The establishment educates its guests on conflicts while serving delicious cuisine from around the world.
Furthermore, there are dozens of cookbooks that explore how food is being used in matters of war and peace. Most recently, Professor Krishnendu Ray published The Migrant’s Table, a book on how migrants are shaping modern cuisine. Netflix has a great award-winning documentary series called Chef’s Table that explores chefs and cuisine around the world. Culinary diplomacy is everywhere.
In a politically polarized world where traditional diplomacy often struggles to produce meaningful results, culinary diplomacy reminds us of the common humanity among countries. For more on the diplomatic bridges built by food around the world, check out The Culinary Citizen, a weekly podcast on how food connects people worldwide, or the many great articles published in Public Diplomacy Magazine.
Image: Guests attend the State Dinner honoring President Hu Jintao of China in State Dining Room of the White House, Jan. 19, 2011.
Johnny V. Boykins is a husband, bow tie aficionado, amateur chef, co-host of the Irrelevantly Relevant Podcast, and U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Boykins has interned at both the United Nations Headquarters in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland. He earned his M.A. in diplomacy and security studies from Norwich University, and a B.A. in political science and communications from Eckerd College. He also has a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and currently lives in Tampa Bay, Florida.