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The way to another country's heart . . .

Culinary diplomacy has shown that it can create pathways to resolving conflicts, at times more effectively than traditional diplomacy.

FEED NOT FIGHT: South Korea began a US$44 million project to popularise Korean cuisine in 2009 with the goal of setting up 40,000 restaurants abroad by 2017. It conducted kimchi diplomacy by opening a kimchi institute at home, and a touring Korean food truck in Los Angeles.

THE United States is conducting culinary diplomacy, winning friends abroad, bringing warring people together, and boosting tourism and trade. It is a new version of a foreign policy that Washington has pursued ever since the founding of America.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton proclaimed last year: "Food is the oldest form of diplomacy." As secretary of state, she launched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership (DCP) in September 2012 to deepen America's culinary engagement within its diplomacy.

She remarked: "Showcasing favourite cuisines, ceremonies and values is an often overlooked and powerful tool of diplomacy. The meals that I share with my counterparts at home and abroad cultivate a stronger cultural understanding between countries, and offer a unique setting to enhance the formal diplomacy."

The current secretary of state, John Kerry, is continuing the initiative. He brought together 50 chefs and diplomats at the State Department in April last year to help achieve US diplomatic goals through the taste-buds of foreign diplomats.

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"You can make connections around a dinner table you can't make around a conference table," he remarked at the event.

"Our chefs have actually become culinary ambassadors. They host visiting chefs and restaurateurs . . . They travel abroad to bring their expertise to chefs and citizens around the world."

Culinary diplomacy, also known as gastro-diplomacy, is part of Track 3 diplomacy, which is unlike the traditional tracks 1 and 2 that aim, for instance, to resolve a wider conflict. Instead, Track 3 uses food as a way of making and deepening contacts.

Moreover, it is proving to be great for business. President Barack Obama has declared that the DCP, in collaboration with Brand USA (a private sector-government partnership) supports the US National Travel and Tourism Strategy of bringing 100 million international visitors a year to the US by 2021, rising from more than 77 million visitors in 2015.

The DCP consists of two parts - an American Chef Corps to help the State Department in formal diplomatic functions, and to conduct gastro-diplomacy by sending the chefs abroad.

Culinary diplomacy is different from food diplomacy under which countries provide or withhold food aid to advance their own diplomatic goals.

American culinary diplomacy goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who served as the US diplomat to France in the middle of a French revolution in 1784. In order to introduce French guests to American food, he had pecans and Virginia ham shipped to him in France. Food historian Thomas J Craughwell explains: "Thomas Jefferson was our first gourmet. He thought about food more than anybody else in America during his life."

Former US president Lyndon Johnson conducted "barbeque diplomacy", entertaining 35 Latin American ambassadors and their wives at one of his largest barbeques in April 1967.

Many countries have adopted culinary diplomacy. The government of Thailand launched its Global Thai programme in 2002, which has attained its goals of creating numerous Thai restaurants abroad and promoting Thai culture.

Next, Japan launched its gastro-diplomacy in 2005, combining culinary history and diplomatic strategy. Japan set up a non-profit entity, Japanese Restaurants Overseas (JRO), to fund development of restaurants specialising in traditional Japanese food.

While Peru has conducted culinary diplomacy since 2006, South Korea began a US$44 million project to popularise Korean cuisine in 2009 with the goal of setting up 40,000 restaurants abroad by 2017. It conducted kimchi diplomacy by opening a kimchi institute at home, and a touring Korean food truck in Los Angeles.

Malaysia has been running its "Malaysia Kitchen" programme to promote its cuisine abroad since 2006, and Indonesia has similarly employed gado-gado diplomacy since 2011.

Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou started a £20 million (S$35 million) gastro-diplomacy campaign in Britain and other countries in 2010. Taipei promotes "stinky tofu" and oyster omelette in order to differentiate itself from its adversarial neighbour, China.

The Singapore Embassy in Washington and the Asia Society co-hosted a food and music evening, "A Dash of Singapore Culinary Diplomacy", in the US capital in April 2011. Ambassador Chan Heng Chee remarked: "Sometimes, diplomacy can be pleasurable, and cultural diplomacy can be very pleasurable."

Recently in June, the Philippine Consulate-General in Toronto launched an exhibit on Philippine food, hoping to boost Canadians' interest in the cuisine, and expand trade in food.

US Foreign Service Officer Mary Jo A Pham, an expert in gastro-diplomacy, explained: "Countries that may be able to benefit from a gastro-diplomacy campaign are middle powers", such as Thailand, which has exponentially increased its restaurants abroad.

Both state and non-state actors are using culinary diplomacy to express a country's culture and values. Artist Michael Rakowitz created his project, Enemy Kitchen, in 2007, using food to generate dialogue in the US about the war in Iraq.

Likewise, Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh serving food from countries with which the US is in conflict in order to promote understanding through food.

It is helping resolve racial conflict at home and abroad. President Barack Obama hosted a "beer summit" in July 2009 to defuse an angry racial outrage when a white policeman wrongly arrested Harvard professor Henry Gates at the professor's own home earlier that month.

After the waves of violence against Indian immigrants in Australia in early 2010, campaigners started the "Vindaloo Against Violence" movement, urging Australians to eat at Indian restaurants to demonstrate their acceptance of Indians. The campaign succeeded as more than 10,000 people signed up, including then prime minister Kevin Rudd and Australian diplomats.

This form of diplomacy is also emerging from the kitchens of many presidents. The Club des Chefs des Chefs (CCC), a gastronomic society grouping the personal chefs of heads of states that started in 1977, will hold a "G-20 summit of gastronomy" in October this year in New Delhi. The CCC believes that it plays a role in international diplomacy by creating the perfect cuisine at summits of world leaders.

As the French diplomat Talleyrand told Emperor Napoleon: "Give me good cooks and I will give you good treaties."

The increasing use of culinary diplomacy shows that it has the power to not only promote trade, tourism, and the restaurant business, but also create pathways to resolving conflicts, at times more effectively than traditional diplomacy.

  • The writer, a former BT Indochina correspondent, has taught history of American foreign relations at Canadian universities, and regularly conducts research at the US National Archives