Chef diplomats will use food to connect cultures

Three food dishes in individual bowls (Courtesy of Jerome Grant)
Jerome Grant's Mahal Xpress rice bowls are inspired by his Afro-Filipino roots. They are pork tocino (front), smoked lemongrass chicken (middle) and aged shoyu beef (rear). (Courtesy of Jerome Grant)

Culinary diplomacy is back.

The U.S. Department of State, with the James Beard Foundation, on February 9 relaunched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, a network of 83 noted American chefs and culinary professionals.

The American Culinary Corps will encourage cross-cultural exchanges by planning menus and preparing cuisine at diplomatic events, such as state dinners and embassy receptions abroad.

An earlier version of the partnership ran from 2012 to 2016. The revived partnership paves the way for the State Department to use food, hospitality and the dining experience to engage world leaders, advance cross-cultural dialogue and strengthen bilateral relationships.

The partnership “will give foreign visitors and dignitaries a chance to learn about the history of American cuisine and, quite literally, get a taste of our culture,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a ceremony for the culinary diplomats and more than 200 guests.

The James Beard Foundation, which honors outstanding individuals behind America’s food culture, helped the department choose the culinary diplomats.

Seated woman and man shaking hands as Antony Blinken looks on and claps (State Dept./Chuck Kennedy)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken applauds Clare Reichenbach, chief executive officer of the James Beard Foundation, and Ambassador Rufus Gifford, U.S. chief of protocol, after they signed an agreement relaunching the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. (State Dept./Chuck Kennedy)

“Chefs have great influence; they have a powerful voice,” said Clare Reichenbach, the foundation’s chief executive officer. “And it’s part of our role to harness that for the good of society, for the good of the food system.”

Chef and humanitarian José Andrés, a member of the culinary corps, could not attend the ceremony. He and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, are in Türkiye serving 50,000 meals daily to the survivors of the devastating earthquake that killed thousands in Türkiye and Syria.

“I’ve seen the power of a plate of food to deliver courage, to provide hope, to bring people closer together,” Andrés said in a video message.

Antony Blinken standing among people wearing blue jackets (State Dept./Chuck Kennedy)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken huddles with chefs and other members of the American Culinary Corps, such as Tanya Holland on his left, during the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership’s relaunch in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room. (State Dept./Chuck Kennedy)

Building out the program, the State Department aimed to emphasize the richness of America’s diverse food culture. The culinary professionals represent everything from Indigenous food to immigrant stories.

Jerome Grant, one of the culinary diplomats, owns Mahal BBQ, a Washington pop-up with cuisine that reflects his Afro-Filipino heritage. Grant was also inaugural executive chef of Sweet Home Café, the restaurant inside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He said he can’t wait to show the world his take on barbecue.

“It’s indicative of who I am and how I grew up, my love for starting fires, my love for all the sweet, salty and spicy things, and really showcasing what’s in my refrigerator,” Grant said.

Culinary diplomat Karen Akunowicz, chef-owner of the Boston Italian restaurant Fox & the Knife, said everyone relates to food because we usually communicate with each other over meals.

“We can use food — sitting together, breaking bread together — to see our similarities instead of just our differences,” she said.