“All of our eating is purposeful,” wherever it takes place, says U.S. Deputy Chief of Protocol Natalie Jones. “There’s a message behind everything.”
This week’s launch with the James Beard Foundation will be message-rich: Buy, and try, American products. Master mixologist Todd Thrasher from Restaurant Eve in Alexandria will be shaking and stirring for the event. Cowgirl Creamery on F Street NW will be wheeling in cheeses. Dolcezza will be scooping up artisanal gelato. Pie Sisters in Georgetown are expected to bake up a storm.
“We want to work with the best of the best,” says Jones.
Clinton’s interest in food dates to her days as first lady, when Marshall served as her social secretary, and the super-frequent-flyer’s enthusiasm has only broadened since. While hunger, security and nutrition issues are at the top of the secretary of state’s food agenda, she has encouraged her staff to come up with fresh ways of extending hospitality to foreign guests who are possibly jet-lagged or on a different body clock. A holding room might come with tea flavored to remind them of home (hibiscus for the Mexicans, cardamom for the Indians). Table accompaniments now include spreads, flatbreads and nuts: welcoming snacks for visitors who might not have seen food for a while or who must wait for a speech before getting a full meal.
“Factoring in others’ tastes, ceremonies and values is an overlooked and powerful part of diplomacy,” Clinton responded to a request from The Washington Post. “The working meals I attend with foreign leaders build stronger bonds between countries and offer an important setting to further the vital diplomatic work we conduct every day.”
The kickoff is being supported with public and private funds. Among the contributors are Mars, the food manufacturing giant, and Lenox, the high-end china and gift producer. “Finding partners has not been difficult,” says Marshall. The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership “is good for American business.”
The food ambassadors are unpaid emissaries who donate their time and effort. “We’re appealing to their sense of patriotism,” says Jones. Before he took off for Greece and Turkey, Isabella said that the request from the State Department was such an honor, “I would pay out of my own pocket to do this.” So he did. Chefs can “represent their country when it works for them,” says Ungaro of the James Beard Foundation.
Food — what it is, where it is, how it looks — “changes the tone and tenor” of high-stakes meetings, says Marshall. Her boss isn’t the only world leader to agree. “If your dish is a miss, it’s more difficult to plead a cause,” French President Francois Hollande told the Club des Chefs des Chefs at a Paris gathering of chefs of political leaders from around the world in July.
Over two decades, Clinton has learned how matters of the table can burnish her legacy.
As first lady, she hired Scheib away from the Greenbrier resort and did away with what he calls the “quasi-French, quasi-California” White House food of the past. Clinton published her own Martha Stewart-style coffee table book, “An Invitation to the White House: At Home With History.”
“She’s already been the entertainer-in-chief,” says U.S. Deputy Chief of Protocol Mark Walsh.
Clinton has also developed adventurous tastes. During a recent trip to Hanoi, she was encouraged to sample the Metropole hotel’s European dining rooms. Instead, Clinton insisted on seeking out a Vietnamese menu. At home and abroad, the secretary of state is known to favor spicy food and exotic flavors. But hold off on game, frisee, shellfish and undercooked meat, say those who have made meals for her.
The brokers of the food drive hope it’s around a long time, no matter who’s in office. “There is a reservoir of knowledge” now, says Marshall. “We don’t want to lose it.”