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State Department Mixes It Up With Culinary Outreach

by Anna Gawel

All the ingredients were there. As culinary TV shows and celebrity chefs inspired cult-like followings, Americans were no longer just eaters — they became foodies, and American cuisine came into its own. Alongside this trend, Washington, D.C., gained serious respect as a food destination in its own right.

U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall hosts a discussion with members of the American Chef Corps and local embassy chefs at Blair House ahead of the Embassy Chef Challenge as part of the State Department's Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, which seeks to elevate the role of culinary engagement in America's public diplomacy.

But in addition to the famous chefs who've migrated to the nation's capital, there's an underbelly of prestigious culinary talent most people don't even know exists: the head chefs of the city's 170-plus embassies.

Throw in a savvy protocol chief to bring it all together and you have the makings of some tantalizing culinary collaborations.

As part of its Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, the State Department's Protocol Office under Capricia Marshall recently invited a group of renowned American chefs to join their counterparts at local embassies for a talk on the universal power of food.

"Ultimately, food is our common ground," said Tom Sietsema, the food critic for the Washington Post, who moderated the March 13 discussion held at Blair House.

Photo: U.S. State Department

Kazakh Embassy chef Yerlan Abdrakhmanov talks about food as a public diplomacy tool at a Blair House discussion.

Nearly two dozen chefs gathered at the president's official guesthouse for the first-of-its kind event, including some big names in the industry. Among them were White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, the first woman to hold the position; Duff Goldman, whose Baltimore-based bakery Charm City Cakes has been widely featured on the Food Network; Amanda Freitag and Marc Murphy, both judges for the Food Network show "Chopped"; and well-known D.C. restaurateurs such as Ris Lacoste, Vikram Sunderam, Maziar Farivar and Robert Wiedmaier.

They were joined by 11 embassy chefs who may not be household names in the United States but are heavy-hitters in their countries, having been tapped to lead the kitchens of their national missions in Washington.

The next day, those chefs got the chance to prove their mettle at the fifth annual Embassy Chef Challenge hosted by Cultural Tourism DC, which also partnered with Marshall for the Blair House discussion.

From left, Maziar Farivar, chef and owner of Peacock Café; Duff Goldman, chef and owner of Charm City Cakes; Hoss Fuentes, executive chef of DC Palm; and Xavier Deshayes, executive chef of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, who catered the event, attend a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership discussion held at Blair House.

Nearly 500 people converged on the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for the popular annual culinary competition, which pitted embassy chefs from Afghanistan, China, El Salvador, Jamaica, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Trinidad and Tobago.

New Zealand's Nathan Bates came out on top with his roasted lamb cutlets, winning a closed-door preliminary cook-off as well as the Judge's Choice and People's Choice awards at the main event — becoming the first chef in the competition's history to sweep all three categories.

"It was great to be able to represent New Zealand on the international stage…. The produce and ingredients, such as New Zealand lamb and kiwifruit, speak for themselves and made it easy for me to create a dish that represents New Zealand cuisine," said Bates, who, like many of his embassy colleagues, ran acclaimed restaurants back home before coming to Washington.

From left, Cultural Tourism DC Board Chair Timothy Cox, Jamaican Embassy chef Sherene N. James, and Cultural Tourism DC Acting Director Lynn Parseghian attend a Blair House discussion on culinary diplomacy ahead of Cultural Tourism DC's fifth annual Embassy Chef Challenge.

Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit coalition that showcases the city's heritage, has clearly struck a nerve with programs like Passport DC and the Embassy Chef Challenge, which continue to grow each year by giving the public a glimpse inside Embassy Row — including its kitchens.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, Marshall also recognized the power of food to bolster U.S. diplomacy — a concept pushed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who throughout her career saw food as a tool to build bridges and break the ice. As first lady, she eschewed the dated French-rooted cuisine at the White House in favor of more innovative dishes specifically tailored to foreign guests.

In September 2012, Marshall, who'd also been Clinton's social secretary, formally launched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership to "elevate the role of culinary engagement in America's formal and public diplomatic efforts" (also see "State Department Dishes Up Smart Power on a Platter" in the November 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat.

The initiative recruits top chefs to serve in the American Chef Corps and teach foreign audiences about U.S. cuisine when they travel abroad. A select group of State Chefs also participates in culinary programs here in the United States.

Nine members of the American Chef Corps were on hand for the Blair House event, where Marshall credited them for changing the face of American cooking.

From left, Ismar Reyes, chef for the Embassy of El Salvador, Amanda Freitag and Marc Murphy, both judges on the Food Network show "Chopped" and members of the American Chef Corps, attend a discussion at Blair House hosted by the State Department Protocol Office ahead of the Embassy Chef Challenge.

"There is now a real recognition of American cuisine," she said. "Literally you set the table for diplomacy."

Marshall noted that she had just returned from accompanying her new boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first overseas trip to nine nations, where she was again reminded of the importance of food.

During the Middle East stops, for instance, she noticed the U.S. delegation was always greeted with tea, even at the airport, describing it as "a very important ritual."

Likewise, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the State Department a few years ago, one of the first things he asked after hours of meetings was, "When are you guys going to serve us some food? We're hungry," Marshall recalled.

For his next visit, Marshall made sure there was hummus and other treats on hand. She remembers Bibi's reaction: "Ah finally, not only do you have food, but you have good food."

"It was an expression of respect, welcoming and putting him in a good mood before he had to engage in some very hard conversations," Marshall said. "I think these are real important moments."

Photo: Jason Morenz

2013 Embassy Chef Challenge winner Nathan Bates of the New Zealand Embassy, center, stands with the previous winners of the Embassy Chef Challenge: Lars Beese, chef for the Danish Embassy, left, and Viktor Merényi of the Hungarian Embassy, right. Bates took home top honors at "Challenge Hungary," a closed-door preliminary competition, as well as the Judge's Choice Award and the People's Choice Award for his roasted lamb cutlet — the first time in the competition's history that a chef has won all three categories.

The bubbly protocol chief, who recently agreed to stay on for a second term, said the State Department is dispatching some of America's best chefs to create similar moments overseas.

For instance, Marc Murphy, owner of Benchmarc Restaurants, talked about Thanksgiving on a TV cooking show during a recent trip to Italy, while Duff Goldman taught a class on American cake decorating during an excursion to Colombia.

Marshall also told the embassy chefs that she wants to "hear from you, the experts," on how to improve the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership.

To that end, the Post's Sietsema asked the embassy chefs how they prepare meals for visiting dignitaries and delegations. Sherene N. James of Jamaica said it starts with the person's diet and crafting a menu around any restrictions.

Photo: Jason Morenz

From left, Shahin Mafi, CEO of Home Health Connection Inc. and benefit chair of the Embassy Chef Challenge, joins Ambassador of Barbados and Mrs. John Beale at the Embassy Chef Challenge, which featured the embassies of Afghanistan, China, El Salvador, Jamaica, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Norwegian chef Simon Liestol Idso says he does all his own food shopping, building a menu of mostly seafood specialties that showcase Norwegian techniques such as salting, drying and smoking.

"All of which happens to be very hot right now," Sietsema pointed out, referring to Copenhagen's critically acclaimed dining scene, as well as the huge Nordic Cool festival that took place recently at the Kennedy Center.

Some of the U.S. chefs said they already tap local embassies as a resource in their work.

"I'm French-Canadian, and I could not get a lot of Canadian ingredients [in D.C.] so I went to the Canadian Embassy," said Ris Lacoste, owner of RIS restaurant. "I love to have the doors open to borrow from you."

Philippine-born Cristeta Comerford said that being executive chef at the White House means that "we have to be very, very careful and diligent and do our homework."

To prep for a state dinner, the pinnacle of her work, Comerford said she coordinates with the State Department on dietary restrictions and does "a lot of research" on the country that's visiting, which includes calling embassies for information.

"It takes a lot of resources, a lot of homework, and a lot of friendships," she said.

Photo: Gail Scott

From left, Ambassador of Norway Wegger Christian Strømmen, Natalia Kislyak, the Rev. Dr. Cecilie J. Strommen, and Ambassador of Russia Sergey Kislyak attend the 2013 Embassy Chef Challenge.

Sietsema revealed a handy little trick he learned from Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan, who invited him to the embassy for lunch before a trip Sietsema was taking to Turkey.

The food critic recalled that they sat at opposite ends of a long table, with a large floral bouquet in the center. The flowers blocked Sietsema from noticing that the ambassador had only eaten salad and dessert, while he had a lavish four-course feast.

Sietsema joked that he learned about "diplomatic dieting" that day.

Of course, anyone who's been to a National Day reception, where buffet tables are laden with rich delicacies, knows that embassies don't usually skimp when it comes to highlighting their homegrown goodies.

Trinidad and Tobago's embassy chef, Mukesh Ramnarine, who goes by the nickname "Chef Tiger," said he likes to use as many ingredients as he can to represent the multiethnic diversity of his twin-island nation.

"I've grown up in different places, and I've always tried to use international cultures in my food," he said, citing products such as yams and green bananas.

He added, though, that in a globalized world, where people are well-traveled and well-informed, "they expect your food to be authentic," and striking a balance between innovation and tradition is always a challenge.

Ismar Reyes of the El Salvador Embassy mixes it up by infusing foods from his Mideast and European travels while also incorporating native ingredients, such as an herb called chipilín, which he says has an intense flavor that kicks his food up a notch. Reyes also still uses the duck recipes he learned from his aunt while growing up on the family farm.

Photo: Gail Scott

Ambassador of Trinidad and Tobago Neil Parsan, second from left, joins his embassy's chef, Mukesh Ramnarine ("Chef Tiger"), third from left, and supporters at the Trinidad food stand of the Embassy Chef Challenge. This year marks the first time Ramnarine has participated in the annual competition.

Chef Ryo Iizawa said family is a key component of Japanese food. "The taste of a family's flavor is very prominent and people associate the flavor of your food with your family," Iizawa said through a translator. "So in Japanese food, it's often how you grew up that influences how you eat, what you eat, and what you make."

Amanda Freitag, one of New York City's most celebrated chefs, said tidbits such as those can only be gleaned by going outside your comfort zone and experiencing the world.

"I found my voice traveling," she said, urging chefs to visit Latin, Asian and other ethnic markets in their hometowns and never stop learning about other cultures.

"Use what's in your backyard but also learn about what other cultures are taking from their backyards."

Her fellow "Chopped" judge Marc Murphy said he's restricted in the number of exotic ingredients he can use in his own French bistros, because "customers come for a certain product so I can't veer too much away from that."

But he does wish American palates were more open to experimentation, reflecting on the recent uproar in Europe over the use of horsemeat in some prepackaged meats. "I could never culturally serve horsemeat here. I think that's a pity because it's a very lean, healthy meat," said Murphy, lamenting the heavy U.S. reliance on poultry, pork and beef, which are often pumped up with chemicals and hormones.

"In America, culturally, I'd love to see a broadening of the mind."

Maziar Farivar, an Iranian native who's owned the Peacock Café in D.C. for the last 25 years, praised his diners for keeping an open mind. He was especially surprised by the warm reception he received when he introduced "Persian nights" to his Peacock Café, which specializes in contemporary American cuisine.

Photo: Jason Morenz

Some 500 guests gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for the 2013 Embassy Chef Challenge, which benefits Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit coalition of more than 230 organizations dedicated to promoting D.C. culture and heritage.

"It was a big hit," Farivar said — among both Iranian natives and Americans.

Likewise, Duff Goldman was surprised by how eagerly his Baltimore-based confections were embraced in Colombia. The star of the TV show "Ace of Cakes" shipped a cake from Los Angeles to Bogotå (at a cost of $8,000) and finished prepping the cake in front of an audience of thousands of Colombians.

"I had no idea our show was that popular over there," said Goldman, who spent the remainder of his trip working with culinary students.

"I let them know what I've been able to do as an American graduating from culinary school," he said, adding that a culinary degree is not just a piece of paper, but a passport. "It really opened some eyes."

German-born chef Robert Wiedmaier, owner of Brasserie Beck and Marcel's, a D.C. establishment, said cuisine has opened his eyes to a whole new world.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd go to the places where I've been," he told his colleagues, citing food festivals in faraway destinations like Reykjavik and Saint Petersburg.

The surge in cross-cultural collaboration — embodied by the State Department initiative — is revolutionizing food as we know it, Wiedmaier said. "It's been so decompartmentalized for years, and it's nice that we're finally bringing everything together."

About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor for the Washington Diplomat and a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.



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