Foreign Policy Blogs

In Case You Missed It: Gourmet Cooking as Diplomacy

Chefs on the White House Lawn. Source: The Braiser

Chefs on the White House Lawn. Source: The Braiser

If you would like to work for the State Department, you can now consider going to cooking school and then joining the American Chef Corps, launched on Friday. According to the Washington Post,

…more than 80 chefs are being inducted into the first American Chef Corps. These food experts could help the State Department prepare meals for visiting dignitaries, travel to U.S. embassies abroad for educational programs with foreign audiences or host culinary experts from around the world in their U.S. kitchens.

This month, chefs and food experts from 25 countries are visiting Washington, New York, San Francisco, the Midwest and New Orleans to learn about U.S. food culture in a State Department program.

The new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership is part of Clinton’s “smart power” philosophy of using “every diplomatic tool at our disposal,” said U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall, in a written response to questions from The Associated Press.

Though fun and novel, this program, which relies on unpaid volunteer efforts from the chefs, is grounded in practicality. On an operational level, as the article notes, it supports the State Department’s daily work of greeting guests and facilitating conversations between diverse discussants. As Hillary Clinton stated to the Washington Post, “Factoring in others’ tastes, ceremonies and values is an overlooked and powerful part of diplomacy. 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 smart power aspect of the program is similarly strategic, particularly when it comes to U.S. chefs going overseas or vice versa. As the Kennedy School’s Joseph Nye, who coined the term, defines it, smart power is the “combination of hard and soft power in effective ways.” Diplomatic outreach programs contribute to the soft power—another Nye term—aspect of smart power. (For more on Clinton and smart power, see this article about Hillary Clinton’s use of the term in 2009).

True, when the Chef Corps goes abroad, it likely will only reach a fragment of a country’s population, like a public audience, for a short amount of time.  However, done right, I think such programs are an important component of promoting a more dynamic view of the United States to overseas audiences, particularly in places where people have relatively little personal exposure to Americans. (I would certainly say the same thing about other countries’ outreach and cultural programs here in the United States.) A former professor of mine, Walter Russell Mead, has participated in State Department trips whereby he gives lectures about U.S. foreign policy, and his insights about his experiences make a good point. As he writes on his blog:

…over the years I’ve learned that foreign audiences are usually more curious about learning how this crazy American system works and why we do the things we do than they are in listening to personal opinions about what the United States should or should not do next.  What I’ve found to be most useful is to help people see how our history helps shape the debates we are having now — and I do my best to be fair to all sides as I try to put our current debates in a historical context.

Wherever one lives, in a world where transnational issues have ramifications at even the most local level, I think that a few hours spent with a guest from another country—a chef, a dignitary, a volunteer or a traveler—is an excellent use of time.



Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.