At a time when it seems as if we all suffer from irreconcilable differences, it may just be the chef and a great plate of food that can bring us together. This is not a new thought; food has been used in mediation for centuries. It was even Escoffier who once stated:
“The art of cooking is perhaps one of the most useful forms of diplomacy.”
From government “State Dinners” that bring world leaders together to the cafeteria in the United Nations building and from restaurant meccas for traditional business lunches to your home dinner table – food is a common denominator and great food is a vehicle for bringing people together.
The key is to find common ground, something that allows people with differences to set them aside in the moment as they appreciate the act of breaking bread. Ah…what a responsibility and what an opportunity we have as cooks to give people a chance to see each other as people first, not just representatives of an ideology, not simply a person with whom we disagree. Restaurants are destinations that provide hope for reconciliation and agreement. They are neutral territory where food and drink can demonstrate what people have in common rather than what pushes them apart. To this end, the chef is the consummate diplomat.
The chef’s diplomatic strategy is complex and specific. The diplomatic meal is one that considers the diners state of mind, history and traditions, and openness to an experience that educates as well as satisfies. Paying respect to each person’s background while spicing up the plate with flavors and presentations that break new ground, surprise, and invigorate is a formula that only the well-seasoned chef can pull off. Sometimes an existing menu can accomplish this while at other times there is a need for the chef to go “off menu”. In either case, having the knowledge to prescribe a meal puts the chef in control of the situation – a position that any true diplomat would enjoy.
It was 2002 when the Economist Magazine coined the word: “gastrodiplomacy” to describe the Global Thai initiative that was focused on improving the image of Thailand and expanding the reach of its cuisine. As a diplomatic effort used numerous times since, this was described as: “winning hearts and minds through stomachs.”1
Food is a universal language, one that anyone can appreciate and embrace as a way to discover more about a culture and the people who represent it. On the international stage this is very commonly used as an effective tool.
I wonder if gastrodiplomacy and the chef’s skills can be just as effective in helping us all put aside our differences, take a breath, break bread, and see each other as people first. We are people with different opinions, but still the same, nonetheless. The cook’s table is a place of commonality, a sacred environment where we can re-think how we approach each other, push aside those points of disagreement, smile, laugh, raise a glass, and enjoy what is on the plate in front of us.
Is food the answer to this downward spiral of disagreement and labeling as “with me or against me”? Pandemic concerns aside, is it time for more community tables in restaurants, more opportunities for chefs to simply cook to unite? Think about those times in your life when you celebrated others; those times when you enjoyed the company of others without judgement or comparison; those times when it was fun to simply be part of another person’s space. I would guess that most, if not all those experiences involved food. Food is the catalyst, the magnet that pulls people to the table and the glue that allows them to bond.
We may not agree on politics, we may be over-the-top partisan when it comes to our favorite sporting team, our views on education, the type of music we listen to or books that we choose to read, but we can all agree on a great tasting plate of food. Why not start there and learn to appreciate what we can agree on? Maybe then, we can grow to listen to others’ opinions without viewing those with whom we disagree as enemies on the other side.
Every day that I think about the career in the kitchen that I chose (or that chose me) I see just how important the work is, just how much opportunity there is for this work to make a difference. Think about it.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
*1 – Fabio Parasecoli – Professor of Food Studies- New York University