Soft (Boiled) Power: Diplomacy Through National Culinary Profiling

"In the United States ... there are strong resurgences of culinary multiculturalism."


“… Stomachs don’t waste time with universal doubt. They begin with inherited cultural wisdom which they seek to further. Bodies and stomachs immerse us in the world, engage us in all sorts of interactions, and blur rigid boundaries between ourselves and our surroundings.”

– Richard Shusterman

We live in a world dominated by food, in both its presence and absence. Nowadays it is possible for someone to fill a culinary passport without leaving the city, let alone country. What people eat plays a major part in defining them. And, just as it is true on an individual level, identity through food is true at the national level.  This is due, in part, to the culturally fueled growth of what is known as culinary diplomacy.

Culinary diplomacy, at its foundation, is meant to “promote the sharing of values, traditions, and worldviews through food.”¹ People are learning to use food as a solution to conflict – and in ways you would not imagine. Last year, Thailand implemented a detailed gastronomic diplomacy research program that has inspired interest in Thai heritage both domestically, through tourism, and abroad. This came in complement to the previous action taken by its government to increase the number of Thai restaurants worldwide. Other countries, in the Far East and elsewhere, have succeeded greatly by following in Thailand’s footsteps.

In the United States, a country historically referred to as a melting pot, there are strong resurgences of culinary multiculturalism. Rather than settle on a path towards uniformity, these multicultural Americans actively represent the many colors and flavors that make this country so delicious. It is international cooperation that can be measured at an edible level. Think of it less as a melting pot and more as a salad bowl.

Waving the banner for American culinary multiculturalism are the chefs of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, introduced in September of 2012. The program led to the creation of the American Chef Corps, whose member were hailed last year as “diplomats in the truest sense of the word.” These chefs are stationed throughout the globe to promote American ingredients and cuisine. with often consulted for advice on proper culinary practices for diplomatic meetings and other government events. The initiative also features chefs stationed across the country who act as resources to the Department of State in preparing meals for foreign visitors, as well as their participation in public diplomacy programs.

Thought it may be the largest, the Department of State is not the only institution practicing culinary diplomacy. Due to its involvement in specialized foreign leadership exchange, Meridian is well-positioned to build upon this growing form of statehood. In May of 2015, during the Expo Milano, Meridian co-hosted a small group of food policy activists for a discussion that centered on “food security and sustainable development in feeding the world’s growing population.”² The hope of both Meridian and the Italian Embassy, the event partner, is that discussions between high-profile players in the global food arena will inspire the utilization culinary diplomacy to help at-risk populations. Every nation has a piece of culture worth sharing, but few hold the power to have their voice heard.

Chef José Andrés speaks at the event about his work with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

Culinary diplomacy goes further than to support culturally accurate dinners between heads-of-state. It presents a win-win situation by strengthening national identity, international partnership, and the global economy. So for those debating whether or not to go to that little Colombian place on the corner this weekend – why not give it a shot? It may bring out the diplomat in you.