Something was amiss in the White House kitchen.
The staff was already keenly aware that the newest residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (a 40-something couple with a teenaged daughter) presented a significant cultural and demographic shift from the previous regime and they wanted things to go smoothly. A frantic call was made to the first lady's office, and her assistant, Capricia Penavic Marshall, picked up the phone. "The first lady is in the kitchen, and she wants ... a pan!"
"Am I missing something?" asked Marshall. Further explanation revealed that first daughter Chelsea Clinton wasn't feeling especially well that day, and her mother wanted to make her some eggs. This, in the experience of the staff, had not happened before. They needed guidance.
"Welcome to a new day," said Marshall. "Get her the pan."
This past Friday night, some two decades after that exchange, Marshall stood at a podium in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the Department of State, flanked by grinning men - and two women - in navy blue chef coats emblazoned with American flags and the department's official seal. Now Chief of Protocol of the United States, she unveiled the department's new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, which will "elevate the role of culinary engagement in America's formal and public diplomacy efforts."
In Marshall's words, "Food matters."
The new partnership with the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit culinary arts organization named for the so-called "Dean of American Cookery," establishes an American Chef Corps comprised of around 80 food professionals who may be deployed to travel abroad as "chef ambassadors," cook for visiting dignitaries, speak to groups, write articles, blog, tweet or find other ways to extol the virtues of American cooking and food products. Top Chef contestant and Graffiato chef Mike Isabella is currently visiting embassies and restaurants in Greece and Turkey in the program's inaugural mission.
A smaller group, including Jose Andres, Rick Bayless, Duff Goldman, past and present White House chefs Cristeta Comerford, Sam Kass, Roland Mesnier, William Yosses and Walter Scheib, as well as other chefs who have participated directly in diplomatic meals and special programs, were introduced as the inaugural Class of State Chefs. As James Beard Foundation Susan Ungaro said, Hillary Clinton had observed throughout her tenures as first lady and Secretary of State, "Better and more effective diplomacy can happen around a dining table than at a conference table."
Secretary Clinton, who appeared via a pre-taped video message, endorsed the campaign and spoke of the personal, one-on-one connections she has seen forged over the course of meals. Her mission: advance diplomacy through food, as we have through the performing arts.
Last February, Marshall had called upon Chef Ming Tsai to craft a luncheon for the visiting Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, reasoning that the chef's signature "East-West" cooking style would set a welcoming tone for the potentially tense conversations between President Barack Obama and the expected next leader. Not only was Xi impressed by Tsai's soy-marinated Alaskan butterfish and shiitake-leek spring rolls - he was honored that the chef had taken the time to fly in and prepare it for him, and that a foreign government would show that level of cultural awareness and respect.
The State Department took note, forging further with their plans for the partnership. Future visiting dignitaries can expect similar attention to nuance and nutrition. As White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass told the crowd (which was busily feasting on American cheeses, cured meats, beer, wine and small bites prepared by members of the Chef Corps), "In 20 years, this will be diplomacy."