Over the last decade, chefs have enjoyed growing influence outside of kitchens as authors, TV celebrities, and advocates for a variety of causes. Across the pond, Jamie Oliver has been campaigning for better school lunches to improve children’s nutrition. In 2010, Jose Andres, of El Bulli fame, went to Haiti after the earthquake to set up 14 solar-powered kitchens that provided food for survivors. Earlier this year, the World Bank enlisted David Chang of Momofuku, among other top chefs, in its mission to end poverty and hunger by 2030.
But can chefs use their cooking powers to promote better diplomatic relations between nations?
This was an idea that Sam Kass wanted to test out. You might know Kass, the former White House chef, from his work as President Obama’s senior advisor for nutrition policy (the first ever) and as the architect behind Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. In 2012, he began to tinker with the idea of using food as a tool in diplomacy. “It’s a simple idea, but one that I thought had a lot of power,” Kass tells Fast Company. “Food is one of the deepest expressions of any culture, and it’s a language unto itself that everybody can relate to. There’s always a lot lost in translation between countries as they try to forge greater understanding.”
Kass’s theory was that if American chefs could travel to different countries—particularly those with which America has strained relationships—they could use food to humanize Americans, providing an alternative glimpse into American culture than what they were seeing in the news.
Kass points out that across the world, America is primarily known as a global superpower with a mighty army. Food, he thought, would offer a much more relatable snapshot into American life. But food could also be a way for America to show respect to other nations. In his vision, American chefs would also pay homage to the food cultures in other nations, showing them humility and admiration. “In life, there are few ways that you can express all of this through one simple gesture,” he says. “But cooking allows you to do this.”
Kass brought these ideas to the chief of protocol at the Department of State and found that there was widespread enthusiasm for creating a culinary diplomacy program, which officially launched in September 2012. Today, Lauren Bernstein, the director of diplomatic culinary partnerships, runs the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation, which provides advice and access to a large array of American chefs. The Foundation has created a network of more than 100 chefs known as the American Chef Corps, who can be tapped to help with the U.S.’s formal diplomacy efforts. The roster announced at its launch reads like an episode of Top Chef Masters: in addition to Kass, it’s full of household names like Rick Bayless, Floyd Cardoz, Dan Barber, April Bloomfield, and Mary Sue Milliken.
Bernstein explains that the program is not particularly regimented; each trip is tailored to the particular interests of the chef and the country they will be visiting. Chefs share with Bernstein their upcoming overseas travel schedules, then she and her team will see how they can leverage American embassies around the world to create a custom itinerary.
Chefs might to do a cooking demonstration for a local TV station, cook a meal for regional leaders at official functions, or do workshops with culinary students. The State Department also hosts a speaker series at embassies around the world and sometimes requests chefs to speak on panels or roundtable discussions about issues like healthy eating, sustainability, or bringing women into the conversation about cooking. “The focus of the program is to foster people to people interactions through food,” Bernstein says. “Our chefs engage with the local community and connect with them through food.”
The program is voluntary, so chefs are not paid to travel on behalf of the state. However, they do get stipends and honorariums for the time they spend doing diplomatic work. “These are people who could charge thousands and thousands of dollars for appearance fees, but when they work with us, they volunteer their time because they believe so strongly in this mission,” Bernstein says.
The program has also evolved to help with other government objectives. For instance, during cooking demonstrations, Bernstein’s team will include American food products and key exports to encourage investment in the U.S. economy. For instance, the State Department recently organized for American chefs Tony Maws, Eric Ziebold, and Frank Ruta to appear on Iron Chef Japan, together with the U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos. Besides simply introducing Japanese audiences to American chefs, the show highlighted U.S. beef as a featured ingredient.
There is also an emphasis on encouraging international tourism to the U.S., and chefs are encouraged to dispel some stereotypes about American food; they are certainly not all preparing burgers and french fries on their travels. “These chefs usually promote their hometown as a culinary destination,” Bernstein says. A chef from New Orleans might highlight cajun or creole foods, for instance.
Kass himself has many stories to tell about his adventures as a culinary ambassador. He explains that by centering the conversation on food, political issues or tensions take a secondary role to culture. He was recently in Burma participating in an event where people from the various ethnic groups came by to cook foods from their regions. “It gave them an opportunity to showcase the culinary diversity in Burma and the richness of that country’s traditions,” Kass says.
He also visited South Korea, where he spent time learning about monastic food culture. “The image of me dressed as a monk eating very traditional dishes prepared by nuns spoke a thousand words,” Kass says. “A newspaper article trying to explain that we care and have respect for South Korea could never really capture what that picture did.” In many parts of the world, ceremonies around food are extremely complex, going back thousands of years, and are designed to express cultural values. Kass says that in showing respect for local food cultures is even more important than most Americans understand because the traditions have so much more gravitas in other countries.
Mary Sue Milliken, a cookbook author, television personality, and the co-owner of Border Grill, has been part of the American Chef Corp since its inception. As an avid traveler, she was thrilled to hear about the program and has worked closely with the State Department to participate in culinary diplomacy efforts around the world. As a woman and a chef, Milliken can speak about food in a unique way, particularly in countries where women don’t have a prominent role in professional kitchens or in society more generally. This was particularly clear to her on a trip she made to China in 1993, years before the culinary diplomacy program, in an exchange that was meant to highlight women. “Wherever we went, we only saw male cooks and chefs,” she says. “We were flabbergasted.”
Last summer, Milliken had the opportunity to visit Pakistan with the State Department. She was drawn to Pakistan for two reasons: first, the U.S.’s public perception there made culinary diplomacy seem all the more important, and secondly, she was keen to uplift Pakistani women by bringing them into the discussion about food. “Food is so neutral,” Milliken says. “It’s a great conversation starter and takes the volatility off the table.”
Bernstein and her team created several programs with the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, one of the biggest U.S. embassies in the world. With local women, she went on tours to open-air markets and went into villages to see how women cooked for their families. She took some orphans between the ages of six and 12 out to a farm and picked vegetables with them. During tea time, she served them homemade granola bars with sesame seeds and mango. “The children were so eager to grab the bars, but when they took a bite out of them, they immediately put them back,” Milliken says with a laugh. “Pakistan has much sweeter desserts and granola bars weren’t particularly tasty to them.”
Milliken also worked closely with a female Pakistani chef, Shai Eid ul Adha, and Pakistan’s leading 24-hour Urdu television channel, Dawn News, followed the pair around in order to produce a miniseries exploring Pakistani and American culinary traditions, which was watched by millions. Together, they spoke with food entrepreneurs and prepared fusion dishes at local restaurants. Milliken also did a big publicity outreach through radio and social media to further boost interest in this diplomatic effort.
“We worked really hard on this trip, from five in the morning until six at night every day for weeks,” Milliken remembers. “But it left me so proud of what America is doing. It was such an eye-opening experience for me to see how our foreign service works and to observe how much the U.S. invests in keeping diplomatic ties strong.” Later, Milliken received an award from Secretary of State John Kerry for her diplomatic work. After a long career as a chef, she had never expected to receive kudos from the State Department. But she’s pretty psyched about it and is putting it up on her wall—right next to her James Beard Award.