Forget the tapenade. Thanks to the recently announced Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, some American chefs are now more interested in the olive branch, as in extending that classic sign of peace and compromise to other peoples around the world.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department formalized a culinary relationship with the James Beard Foundation, whose mission is to “educate, inspire, entertain, and foster a deeper understanding of our culinary culture.” (This photo of the event is from the Philadelphia Inquirer.) I was lucky enough to attend the reception in Washington, D.C. to announce and celebrate this new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and to introduce the 2012 class of State Chefs.
Held in the State Department’s elegant Benjamin Franklin Room, within sight of the Capitol and Washington Monument, the event was attended by dozens of well-known chefs from around the country, members of the State Department staff, government dignitaries, members of the James Beard Foundation’s board, and food journalists (including this one) from the Association of Food Journalists, who were in D.C. for their annual conference. As befits a gathering of card-carrying foodies, the evening's "menu" was a stellar line-up including the Heirloom Bean and Bacon Tostada pictured here.
The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership aims to use America's culinary talent as a means of diplomacy. To achieve this, the Department has tapped prominent U.S. chefs to join the American Chef Corps, a group of 80-plus food-and-wine professionals who have "agreed to serve as resources to the Department of State in its efforts to incorporate culinary engagement into its ongoing public diplomacy efforts." The chefs will be called upon to prepare various state dinners as well as to travel to other countries to spread American food traditions. (Chefs will donate their time and energy, and travel on their own dime.)
U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall summed up the concept in her remarks:
"By showcasing the best of American cuisine and creativity, we can show our guests a bit about ourselves. Likewise, by incorporating elements of our visitor's culture, we can demonstrate respect and a desire to connect and engage."
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton also spoke at the gathering, via a video message, saying
“Food isn’t traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can.”
The illustrious group of chefs includes José Andrés who oversees an empire of Spanish restaurants in the U.S., Todd Gray of D.C.’s Equinox, Chicago’s Rick Bayless, seafood master Rick Moonen, L.A.’s Mary Sue Milliken of “Too Hot Tamales” fame, San Francisco pastry chef Emily Luchetti, and Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA. More than 50 of the chefs were present at the announcement, and some of them were cooking their signature appetizers for the reception guests who circulated through the formal rooms and the large terrace with its breathtaking view.
In addition to a lavish buffet of American cheeses and charcuterie, there were a dozen food stations and bars, along with a non-stop array of passed hors d’oeuvres.
Mary Sue Milliken’s tiny tostada with heirloom beans, avocado and bacon was a standout, as was the yummy Maryland Blue Crab Crostini by Food Network personality Amanda Freitag. Bryan Voltaggio of Volt in nearby Frederick, MD served a meltingly tender bison shortrib with figs, smoked almonds and charred onion.
Of the passed hors d’oeuvres it was the precious little piggies playing on a verdant serving platter that stole the show. The old-fashioned pigs-in-a-blanket, along with the newfangled pig-shaped smoked salmon canapes, topped with tobiko, were created by chef/caterer Peter Callahan. Widely credited with the invention of such mini comfort foods as the “slider,” Callahan also sent trays of mini burgers; mini pizzas (each in its own Diplomatic Culinary Partnership pizza box); and mini grilled cheese sandwiches around the room. Further stoking the buzz: mini drinks to accompany each two-bite appetizer. And near the close of the event: mini cotton candy cones.
Drink offerings were equally impressive with a wine bar featuring vintages from lesser known wine regions such as Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, New York and Texas, as well as specialty cocktails mixed by some of the area’s best known bartenders.
I especially liked the bright, herby cocktail dreamed up by Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA. (Photo from Restaurant Eve.) Using sauvignon blanc that he infused with several fresh herbs, Thrasher (who Wash Post critic Tom Sietsema calls “one of the best mixologists anywhere”) shook up a pale, puckery drink, dubbed the "Thymes Like These," that seemed to me the perfect way to toast the future efforts of the American Chef Corps.