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Against Foodie Diplomacy

Last Friday marked the official inception of a new joint effort between the State Department and the James Beard Foundation: the American Chef Corps, which is comprised of twenty celebrity chefs. The list includes such luminaries as Jose Andres of D.C.’s Jaleo, April Bloomfield of New York’s Spotted Pig, and Dan Barber, the current patron saint of the farm-to-table movement. Mike Isabella, of Top Chef fame, will be the first “State Chef,” a unfortunately authoritarian title whose vague job description is rather more mellow: The man famous for hooking Washingtonians on “Jersey-Italian” cuisine will “represent America's food culture abroad.”

To be clear, Isabella will not represent America’s actual food culture. In fact, what the White House and State Department wish to accomplish with the Chef Corps (as part of the larger “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership”) is to rebrand U.S. food culture abroad. Thanks to the many Golden Arches strewn across the globe, the rest of the world has a certain fixed idea about American cuisine, and perhaps Americans more generally: A horde of preservative-popping tramplers of local culture. Unfortunately, Foggy Bottom’s effort to show off the more diverse and human side of the Yankee kitchen seems focused primarily on the $100-a-plate foodie category of culinary life—something out of reach for most Americans, not to mention the foreigners with whom our toque-wearing ambassadors will soon be engaging.

I have no problem with cultural diplomacy—and I know the artists and poets and dancers who venture abroad on Uncle Sam’s behalf are also not quite representative of main street. Nor, for that matter, do I think it’s crazy to wine and dine people you want to like you. (Modern procreation owes an awful lot to that, in fact, as does the slightly different kind of screwing they’re interested in on K Street.)  And, as much as I love to read other people taking a piss out of foodieism as moral movement, I’d love for the rest of the world to know that Americans like me gorge not just on Happy Meals, but on locally-pickled items and weird animals innards at Brooklyn restaurants. All the same, this particular combination of famous people serving up unlasting stuff that’s meant for the wealthy—well, maybe it’s not the best idea.

The actual nuts and bolts of the culinary diplomacy program remain somewhat vague. The Office of the Chief of Protocol has, since 2009, made it a point to seek out diplomatic participation from “prominent” chefs in various ways, mostly by cooking for visiting dignitaries. But the Chef Corps represents a newly formalized effort to bring the show on the road. According to official boilerplate from Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, the former White House Social Secretary who is spearheading the effort,“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.”

So this “connecting” might involve, as it has in recent efforts, a video conference in which American-Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou discussed the ins and outs of opening his restaurant, and cooking for Ramadan with viewers in Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India. It sometimes means bringing food experts of various stripes and from various countries to some of the U.S.’s food meccas— including Washington, New Orleans, New York, Napa and (with the concern for not appearing elitist that smacks of elitism) Des Moines and “surrounding Heartland states.” It can mean asking those visiting chefs to spend spending three hours feeding D.C.’s needy. Or it might mean chefs who find themselves in Europe spend a few hours answering questions from local bloggers and cooks, as Isabella did on a recent trip to Greece. (The State Department, perhaps sensitive to potential criticism at pouring too much money into this program, is careful to emphasize that chefs who go abroad as part of the Corps travel on their own dime.)

So far, so good. Look closer, though, and there’s something a bit off-putting about the details. Take, for instance, the preponderance of celebrity chefs. Sure, we’d like to show the world that we can do cute little artisan restaurants as well as any of their fancy historic cities, but our Chef Corps looks a lot more Hollywood than Neighborhood Bistro: Nearly half of the 80 chefs involved are affiliated with television programs. This is no accident: TV is where the culinary money is these days, and money is kind of a prerequisite in an effort that asks participants to donate time and the occasional plane ticket. (Of course, TV might also be the most democratic element of the whole thing; the roster includes, for instance, Andrew Zimmerman, who won an Iron Chef episode that featured a cream cheese battle and Duff Goldman, of Charm City Cakes, of TV’s very sugary Ace of Cakes.)

Privately, not every chef thinks this is the best way to harness their star power. They’d rather concentrate on all the many nutritional problems closer to home, for one thing. “[My boss] thinks "celebrity" chefs should spend time trying to change food policy, not doing stuff like this and charity events,” says a staffer for one famous chef who’s often called upon to lend his name (and labor) for such undertakings.

And then there’s the complicated story of culinary influence itself. Yes, there’s something wholesome and simple and primal about the idea of breaking bread with allies and enemies alike. But the deliciousness of fusion cooking is often a very tasty byproduct of imperial exercises that foreign ministries the world around tend to shy away from discussing. (The folks in charge of France’s global image, you’d imagine, would rather you not think to closely about why, precisely, banh mi is made with baguette bread—just as our State Department might not want officials in Hanoi to remember the events that caused so many banh mi establishments to open up here starting in the mid-70s.)

Even without the backlash of war, there’s other sorts of diplomatic sensitivity to consider. What chunks of this program seem to be doing is telling the rest of the world that we took their stuff—their beloved paellas, their ancient shwarmas, their impeccable terrines, their inventive spice palates—and made it better because we made it modern and American and shiny and expensive. Now, this might very well be true (although I’m pretty sure that’s not the prevailing foodie opinion, both inside and outside these borders). And believing that the New World improves upon the cultural heritage of the Old is at the heart of the American experiment, sure. But we can’t just TELL them that outright. That’s the very worst kind of cultural diplomacy.

Then there’s that other dimension: Money. Consuming expensive things, in the locavore-organic-food-as-art era, is looked upon as moral high ground, not an occasion of conspicuous consumption. Food snobbery is the most socially acceptable form of consumer elitism in these economically troubled times. But is it the best thing to give the rest of the world the impression that Americans are all eating multiple-course meals prepared by TV superstars? Consider an imaginary scenarios in which the State Department announced an initiative in which, say, Thakoon Panichgul headed to his hereditary homeland of Thailand and gave out free designer dresses to dignitaries there. Would we be quite so giddy?

But at least Thai consumers who found something to love in Thakoon’s clothes could buy them. Restaurants are by definition local. What this bit of cultural diplomacy amounts to, more or less, is giving people a taste of what they can’t actually have. Or, maybe, it’s all a canny plan in this era of the franchised chef. Does Wolfgang Puck have a restaurant in Baghdad yet?