Perhaps no country in the world is more closely associated with cooking and the culinary world than France. After all, “cuisine” itself, meaning kitchen, is a French word.
No wonder the French Embassy’s La Maison Française recently co-hosted—along with the French-American Cultural Foundation—a discussion on “Cuisine as Diplomacy: Around the Table.”
The May 25 event, attended by 80 people in person and many more online, featured welcoming remarks from Philippe Etienne, French ambassador to the United States, and Guillaume Gomez, special representative of French President Emmanuel Macron for gastronomy.
The panel consisted of Ambassador Rufus Gifford, chief of protocol of the United States and former US envoy to Denmark; Bertrand Rondot, chief curator at the Château de Versailles; and historian Libby O’Connell, co-chair of the History Education Advisory Council.
Rondot offered his audience a quick history lesson on the Château de Versailles, located 12 miles west of Paris. In 1682 the palace became the de facto capital of France when King Louis XIV moved the seat of his court and the government there.
“Versailles was a hub of diplomacy,” he said. “Diplomats came from Europe and all over the world. European countries had permanent embassies in Paris with a proper retinue. They would come to Versailles on Tuesday to meet with the minister of foreign affairs. Ambassadors also came from non-European countries—from Africa, Asia, even America. But you’d be astonished to know that the king would never dine with the ambassadors.”
Rather, he would eat in public, sitting at a table slightly more than two meters long and accompanied only a few other members of the royal family. Royal French dinners consisted of four services or courses, with each one comprising dozens of dishes.
“Not everything was to be eaten, of course. It was more a way to show what could be hunted, fished and grown, if not imported,” Rondot said, noting that Louis XIV had at least 40 distinct dishes to choose from at the dinner table. “People could admire the quality of the food but they couldn’t taste it. You may find it very rude, in a way, to let people watch you eat and not share.”
Indeed, said O’Connell, what really mattered back then was to serve the most important guests the best food.
“That wouldn’t play very well in diplomatic circles anymore, of course,” said O’Connell, author of The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites. “Every time a course was cleared in medieval times, they would play trumpets. The food itself was so important, it was deserving of honor.”
That’s a message shared by Gifford, who joined the Biden administration this past January and spoke to the Diplomat in an exclusive interview shortly after his confirmation as the nation’s first openly gay chief of protocol.
“The essence of dining is the essence of diplomacy,” said Gifford, who served as US ambassador to Denmark from 2013 to 2017. “When I first got to Copenhagen, I wanted to rethink the way our embassy thought about food. I wanted to tell a story with everything we did, including the food we served.”
Growing up in a small town 30 miles north of Boston, Gifford said that when he was a kid, his family would enjoy dinner together every Thursday evening.
My parents would make a dish that was special to us,” he recalled. “For all the fighting between my brothers and sisters, we’d all have our favorite spaghetti bowl—and forget about the drama that existed outside the dinner table. And that is what I wanted to bring to my embassy.”
But when Gifford saw the menus offered at the US ambassador’s residence in Copenhagen, he said, “I was incredibly bored by them. I found them to be very stereotypical and generic—exactly what you’d expect. I wanted to challenge what Danes thought they should be eating when they walked into an American ambassador’s residence.”
For Thanksgiving, “as iconic an American meal as you can get,” said Gifford, the American chefs at Noma—a world-class restaurant in Copenhagen—cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the Danish prime minister and the royal family.
“This was a wonderful example of how food diplomacy can work. It’s just a way to build conversation,” he said. “And on the Fourth of July one year, we did a ‘taste of America’—sliders, grilled cheese and apple pie—but we also served Vietnamese and Mexican food, because honestly, we are telling a story about the United States and our culinary diversity.”
Gifford said his office hopes to build bridges with organizations such as the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is “to celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America’s food culture.”
He added: “When you tell a story with food—whatever that story may be—it makes diplomacy a little bit easier. I have found that especially, at this moment in time, whether it’s coming out of covid, or the weight of the geopolitical situation around the world, we need more joy in our lives. We need more reasons to gather around a table and laugh and smile, and connect as human beings. That starts and ends with food.”