At a time when the world seems to be totally on edge, when countries fight other countries, people express hate for others not like them, and political beliefs dictate whether or not another person is worthy of friendship we crave the opportunity to find any way of bringing people together. I think about this all of the time since it appears that we are unable to get away from reading, listening to, seeing, and discussing the chaos around us: too much information and no one seeking real solutions. Are there common denominators – things that we can all agree on? What and who can make people set aside their differences and seek common ground?
I propose that the answer lies with the food that we relish, the traditions that surround this food, and the people who dedicate their lives to preparing it with care, passion, and respect. Diplomacy seems to be a rare commodity, yet, if we stop to reflect for just a moment we would realize that peoples’ beliefs are not easily changed, and certainly not by force. It is the diplomacy of patience, respect, an open mind, and dialogue that represent any real “win”. Diplomacy and food are cherished partners.
“The art of cooking is perhaps one of the most useful forms of diplomacy.”
-Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935)
The people of our planet will likely never agree on politics, religion, economics, geographic borders, the role of history, or even how we approach our natural resources, but we can all agree on one thing – the joy derived from eating a great plate of food. It is the practice of “breaking bread” that allows people, at least for a short period of time, to put aside what they fail to agree upon and concentrate on how the food makes them feel. This “food experience”, through the ages, has been beneficial in breaking the ice over contentious issues and coaxing people to talk in a civilized manner.
This works at the personal diplomacy level between friends, relatives, and those in relationships as well as heads of state, factions of different parties, enemies on the battlefield, and business adversaries. Think about the value derived from State Dinners that are occasionally hosted in Washington. For a brief period of time, everyone is equal as they address the plate of food in front of them that is prepared by individuals in the kitchen who at that moment have no affiliation with a political party, nor do they care about the issues at hand aside from their task of nurturing great ingredients, practicing their craft, and producing a meal that will bring a smile to the faces of guests.
Here is why I believe that chefs and cooks make the greatest diplomats:
- WHAT IS A DIPLOMAT
“a person who can deal with people in a sensitive and effective way.” – dictionary.com
Chefs and cooks are representatives of the hospitality business – easily defined in the same manner as one would describe a diplomat – dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way. This is what we do.
- AMBASSADORS OF TRADITION
At the heart of any person’s passion is appreciation for their culture. Culture is a combination of many things from language, to art, literature, drama, music, religion, history, and of course cuisine. By respecting this passion, chefs and cooks are able to tug at the hearts, minds, and souls of individuals who, at their foundation, are proud of where they came from and the traditions associated with that. A skilled chef or cook can bridge the gap that may exist between people by approaching cuisine in a manner that shows deep respect for tradition. A familiar aroma, presentation, or taste can make even the greatest adversary pause and smile. No one else can tap into this like a chef.
- THE DIVERSION OF THE SENSES
People are tied closely to our senses. In fact, our senses may be the trigger for nearly everything in life.
“Magic is really only the utilization of the entire spectrum of the senses. Humans have cut themselves off from their senses. Now they see only a tiny portion of the visible spectrum, hear only the loudest of sounds, their sense of smell is shockingly poor and they can only distinguish the sweetest and sourest of tastes.”
― Michael Scott, The Alchemyst
Chefs and cooks have control of the magic. If they use their craft appropriately they are able to stir up sensual memories – the visual, aromatic, textural, auditory, and flavor of food from an individual’s past. These food memories can easily divert a person from their current anxiety, anger, or simple disagreements. For that moment it is the food and the people who are enjoying it together that count. Chefs and cooks work from their bag of tricks as they coax all of these senses into submission with every plate of food.
When a person is captive to the senses there is far more room for diplomatic discussion and the chance for compromise.
- APPRECIATION FOR CRAFTSMANSHIP
Any person can appreciate the beauty of a job well done and the craftspeople who are skilled enough to perform at the highest level. Changing food while respecting the nature of raw materials that came from the earth and moving them in the direction of finished dish with the artistry of a painter, the smells of perfectly cooked vegetables, meats, and fish, and the taste that tempts the palate and gives a person pause is the result of true craftsmanship. In this state, the recipient is more likely in a state of acceptance and more willing to listen to other points of view.
- GIVING WITHOUT NEED FOR RECIPROCITY
While both sides of an argument are typically looking for “what’s in it for me”, the chef and cook performs his or her magic for the primary benefit of the craft and seek little praise in exchange. Their only treasured reward is a clean plate.
- THE ABILITY TO DIVERT ATTENTION
Overall, the role that the chef/diplomat plays is parallel to that of anyone seeking to open peoples’ minds and drive toward compromise and agreement – the ability to divert attention. Reason is hard to come by when the only point of engagement is around the issue at hand. When a diplomat is able to turn the conversation in another direction, even for a few moments, and allow people to take a breath, then the door opens for give and take. This is what food is able to help accomplish.
I have addressed this topic in the past and although some may disregard this theory as lacking any strength in reality, I ask them to look to their personal history, to the role that food and culture have played throughout history, the non-partisan role that chefs and cooks play in providing delicious diversions, the reality that aggressive conflict never produces a win-win result, and the opportunity that might be available through the hands of the cook.
It’s worth a try anyway.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Be a diplomatic chef
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Reference: “The Chef Says” – Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom