Mike Isabella originally intended to leave for Greece and Turkey last week for 15 days of research in anticipation of his forthcoming restaurant, Kapnos. But when his country called, the former “Top Chef” contestant and creator of Graffiato and Bandolero in Washington added some embassy stops and restaurant and vendor meetings to his overseas itinerary.
Isabella is one of the first chefs to be tapped by the State Department to serve as a culinary ambassador abroad, part of an ambitious new undertaking to use food as a diplomatic tool. Initiated by the U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall and blessed by her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership aims to “elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts,” according to a mission statement.
The initiative, in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, named for the late dean of American cooking, will be officially announced at the State Department on Sept. 7 at a reception featuring some of the nation’s premiere chefs and pedigreed products. “James used to say, ‘Food is our common ground,’” says foundation president Susan Ungaro. “He would be thrilled” by chefs “getting recognition in ways they never have before.”
The wide-ranging effort creates an American Chef Corps, a network of culinary leaders who could be deployed to promote U.S. cooking and agricultural products abroad. “They might meet with an embassy, cook a lunch, post blogs or [write] articles, speak at events,” says Marshall, listing the many ways participants might engage.
American chefs who aspire to medals from the James Beard Foundation and to stars from Michelin now have something else to aim for: navy-blue jackets set off with an American flag, the seal of the State Department and their names embroidered in gold on the front. The State Chef designation will be reserved for industry members who have distinguished themselves by, say, serving a meal for the State Department or hosting a foreign delegation.
Rock Harper is proof that chefs don’t need a passport to earn the honor. The director of kitchen operations at DC Central Kitchen plans to introduce chefs, teachers and journalists from around the world to his culinary job training and food recycling operation Sept. 7. “This is not just a photo op,” says Harper of his three-hour plans for the State Department guests. “They’re going to get their hands dirty” by cooking free meals for the disadvantaged.
Among the other 20-plus soon-to-be anointed State Chefs — the full roster will be revealed Sept. 7 — are the Washington area’s Jose Andres, who cooked for the 50th anniversary of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms last year; former White House chef Walter Scheib; Vikram Sunderam, who introduced local schoolchildren to “A Taste of India” at a cultural exchange at Blair House three years ago; and Bryan Voltaggio, who prepared a three-course dinner for Japan’s prime minister at the National Geographic Museum in April; plus the traveling Isabella. Headliners from elsewhere include British-born chef April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York, who made lunch for the British prime minister in March, and Mexican-food maestro Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. Bayless cooked at the Obama administration’s second state dinner in 2010, for the Mexican president.
Unofficially until this week, the Beard foundation in recent years advised the State Department on chef talent. For a lunch for the vice president of China in February, for instance, the foundation identified Ming Tsai, the Chinese American chef of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass. — and freshly minted State Chef.
During the Chicago NATO Summit in May, world leaders saw not chafing dishes, but snack-size tastes of the Windy City: finger foods including mini deep-dish pizzas, popcorn and pierogis. For speed and convenience, the small plates in the leaders-only lounge were arranged on a tiered buffet.
“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.”