Secretary of State Antony Blinken (center) with the members of the Kitchen Cabinet, from left: James Beard Foundation CEO Claire Reichenbach, American Culinary Federation President Kimberly Brock-Brown, Jeni Briton, Culinary Institute of America President Dr. Tim Ryan, Dale Miller with American Masterchef Order, and Ambassador Rufus Gifford, Feb. 9. Photo by Ronny Przysucha
By Tyler C. Savoy
Across cultures, nationalities, religions, and politics, food serves as a universal bridge between people and cultures despite their many differences. A person’s most tangible memories of a place, time, or interaction often involve a meal whether enjoyed alone or shared with others. Diplomacy, it turns out, is a beautiful marriage with the culinary arts. After all, the goal of diplomacy is not only to convey priorities through meetings, words, and moments, but also to share the best parts of one’s culture in the pursuit of connection and dialogue.
To these ends, the Office of the Chief of Protocol relaunched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership in collaboration with the James Beard Foundation, a New York City-based national non-profit culinary arts organization, Feb. 9. With Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosting the reception, members of the new American Culinary Corps Partnership were honored for their outstanding achievements and called upon to serve as culinary diplomats for the United States. Among the 83 members of the Corps are chefs, pastry chefs, pitmasters, teachers, humanitarians, and food activists representing a diverse cross-section of the United States, a wide array of cuisine specialties, and an impressive range of career progression. All told, the corps represents an amazing opportunity for the Department of State to share stories of varied and unique American cuisine. The stories are what make this group of culinary artisans and advocates a powerful force for diplomacy.
Eating together represents an opportunity to form and craft new bonds and ties while advancing American values. Blinken echoed this importance of community as being so foundational to the nature of diplomacy when he said, “When we break bread with people, we learn something about each other in ways that transcend divisions of geography or language.”
Members of the corps represent the diversity of American cuisine. Tootsie Tomanetz, the 88 year-old “Queen of Texas BBQ,” is a pitmaster in Lexington, Texas, on Saturdays and works as a high school janitor the rest of the week. Robynne Maii, the first Pacific Islander woman to earn a James Beard Award, also advocates for working mothers in the hospitality industry. Robert Egger, the founder of DC Central Kitchen, dedicated his career to advancing the power of food. Christine Hà, the first blind winner of MasterChef, is renowned for her Southeast Asian fusion cuisine. Tanya Holland has a passion for soul food and inclusion and equity in the hospitality industry as big as her iconic smile and deep, genuine laugh. Sean Sherman, the “Sioux Chef,” is revitalizing and reidentifying indigenous foods with such enthusiasm and passion that he was recently selected as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. And Mariya Russell has a culinary imagination and determined management that led her to become the first Black woman to earn a prestigious Michelin Star.
Jessica and Trina Quinn, a queer couple, are manifesting their love of Eastern European cuisine from a cooking together at home concept to a thriving business in New York City. Kevin Tien is a rising star with national acclaim who founded Chefs Stopping AAPI (Asian-American and Pacific Islander) Hate to raise awareness about and combat anti-AAPI violence and racism. Warda Bouguettaya, whose French techniques, combined with global tastes and essences, are inspired by her immigrant journey from Algeria to America. Anthony Myint shifted from his successful career as a chef to bring national and worldwide attention to sustainable agriculture and climate change. Debby Portillo and Fernando Gonzalez immigrated to the United States from El Salvador and established a now top-rated BBQ restaurant just outside of Washington, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their resilience was reflected in the guest they brought to Blinken’s reception—their immigration attorney.
The stories, accolades, and passions of these individuals are as widely diverse as the elite group they joined.
“Food has been an integral part of the American story. Our culinary traditions show who we are, where we came from, and what we cherish,” said Blinken at the reception launching the partnership.
As a testament to the culture of learning, growth, and expansion within the Corps, four student chefs from the American Culinary Federation worked alongside Department chefs to prepare and serve cuisine for the reception that attracted members of the Foreign Diplomatic Corps, members of Congress, food journalists, and other senior government officials. Blinken recognized the student chefs, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cirius Brown who serves as a Commissaryman; Barbara Casey; Alxs Galit; and Isaiah Gerrard, saying they represent the next generation of the culinary profession.
“… The diversity, creativity, and sheer talent that you bring show us that it’s a bright future indeed—and a delicious one,” Blinken added.
The next step is to put the American Culinary Corps into action for a variety of public diplomacy engagements including cultural events, state dinners and luncheons, and multilateral summits, and sending them abroad to support the Department’s foreign missions.
“Through this initiative, we will seek to find innovative ways of embracing food, hospitality, and community as diplomatic tools to engage world leaders, further cross-cultural dialogue, and strengthen our bilateral relationships, all the while having a little bit of fun and creating a little bit of joy,” said Ambassador Rufus Gifford, U.S. chief of protocol.
In a fitting testament to engaged action, the renowned celebrity chef and humanitarian José Andrés, another culinary diplomat, sent a video from southeastern Türkiye where he and his World Central Kitchen non-profit were feeding survivors of the earthquake that struck the border with Syria.
Two members of the corps were tapped for the recent State visit of President Yoon Suk-yeol of the Republic of Korea (ROK) hosted by President Joe Biden. Edward Lee, a Korean-American chef specializing in food from the American South, was asked by first lady Dr. Jill Biden to cook for the state dinner and honor 70 years of U.S.-ROK diplomatic relations. Angel Barreto, a Black American chef whose love of Korean food and culture was fostered when his parents were stationed in ROK with the U.S. Armed Forces, was invited by Vice President Kamala Harris and Blinken to cook for the state luncheon at the Harry S Truman Building. These members of the American Culinary Corps served as culinary diplomats helping to create opportunities for relationships to deepen over plates of food.
It will, perhaps, be that spirit of connection and pursuit of dialogue that will guide the efforts of this program going forward. Clare Reichenbach, chief executive officer of the James Beard Foundation, quoted the organization’s namesake at the launch reception, describing food as humanity’s common ground.
“Together we recognize the power of food in cultivating human connection, and as a compelling expression of heritage and culture,” she said.
Tyler C. Savoy is a senior protocol officer in the Office of the Chief of Protocol.