Can a meal promote world peace? Or, more important, can a chef hold out an olive branch, along with a taste of tapenade?
That's the premise behind the American Chef Corps, a network of men and women in the restaurant industry who, with the U.S. State Department's blessing, will reach out to others, whether on this soil or abroad. The Chef Corps is part of a new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, a collaborative effort between the State Department, its protocol office and the James Beard Foundation. It's also a recognition that food matters, in a big way, to all people.
In fact, food is the oldest diplomatic tool, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said via video to the crowd gathered at the State Department last week as the program was announced. "Sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can. Some of the most meaningful conversations I've had with my counterparts around the world have taken place over lunch and dinner."
Think of these chefs as culinary ambassadors. Members of the Chef Corps -- an unpaid position that relies on a sense of patriotism -- will work with the State Department in three ways: They will help with the food prep, presentation and planning for shared meals between American and foreign leaders.
The corps will also be part of an informal "expert program" that links chefs traveling on their own with embassies and foreign audiences in an effort to educate those abroad about American culinary traditions and foods. That might mean that a chef would hold a cooking demo, speak at an event or cook lunch at an embassy. It's all part of the mission to offer up that olive branch with some educational context. The corps will also share its expertise with food professionals from abroad who are in the United States as part of an exchange program.
"By showcasing the best of American cuisine and creativity, we can show our guests a bit about ourselves. Likewise, by incorporating elements of our visitor's culture, we can demonstrate respect and a desire to connect and engage," said Capricia Penavic Marshall, U.S. chief of protocol, at the formal announcement.
For the James Beard Foundation, it's a natural collaboration that continues earlier efforts to expand the role of chefs. "I immediately thought about what James Beard so wisely said more than 30 years ago: 'Food is our common ground,' " said Susan Ungaro, president of the foundation.
Sam Kass, White House senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives and one of the Chef Corps members (there are 90 at present), noted: "We have the ability to do so much and bring people together and cross boundaries. There's so much untapped potential with food."