“Gastrodiplomacy”, “Gastrodiplomat”, “Eatocracy”, “Culinary Diplomacy” – these are just a few of the new buzz words which are being used by politicians, diplomats, culinary experts, and public relations practitioners, as the world now takes notice of what is probably the oldest and most effective mechanism of public engagement: FOOD!
The official definition of culinary diplomacy is “the use of food and cuisine as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding with the goal of improving interactions and cooperation.” But here in Washington DC, food achieves a lot more than “creating cross-cultural understanding”. In this city, and I am sure in many other metropolises around the world, power lunches, cocktail receptions, and salon dinners are some of the most common, effective methods of engaging stakeholders, establishing networks, and solidifying partnerships. In fact, more of the world’s largest deals are brokered over a dining table than a conference table.
So, what is it about food that inspires people, moves their hearts, and makes their minds more malleable? I think it’s a matter of identity. Food proves that there are really only “perceived” differences between human beings. Because of our human nature, we share many key similarities – we all breathe, we all feel emotions, and we all MUST EAT. So, when we gather over food, there is a trigger in our minds that makes us identify with the person with whom we are eating. That process of identifying, of seeing something in common with the person, shifts our perceptions, and opens our minds. We move closer to middle ground, and feel more compelled to cooperate.
Besides being a source of comfort, a tourist attraction, a form of entertainment, and a negotiation tool, food has also become a source of compelling headlines. Many of these headlines are centered on the worldwide concern about the nutritional value of food which is being sacrificed in the name of taste and speed, to the detriment of our health. In a nutshell, the number of persons who are suffering from preventable, potentially life-threatening diseases is rising alarmingly – and sadly, many of these diseases are related to the poor nutritional value of food.
The challenge is: how do we balance our lifestyle need for a quick meal (fast food), with the needs of our palate (appealing taste), and the needs of our body (high nutritional value)?
On May 22nd, 2013, Meridian International Center joined this debate by hosting the program – “Culinary Diplomacy across Borders: Highlighting the Importance of Nutrition”. This dynamic discussion was hosted in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Chief of Protocol and THIS, as part of the Insights at Meridian series for the diplomatic community. For two hours, some of DC’s leading culinary stakeholders explored the new definition of the “balanced meal”. In this new paradigm of eating, food serves ALL the purposes for which it is intended – nutrition, taste, and entertainment. Key highlights of the program included insights shared by Chef Nora Pouillon, a pioneer and champion of organic, environmentally conscious cuisine. Chef Nora gave an inspiring account of how she embarked on a crusade to promote a healthy lifestyle in the U.S. upon arriving from Vienna, including opening the first certified organic restaurant in America: Restaurant Nora. This account was filled with many trials and challenges in convincing farmers to avoid the chemicals that are potentially damaging to the human body, and letting nature do what it does best – provide the nutrition we need for a healthy lifestyle through food.
Thankfully, Chef Nora is not alone. The focus on nutrition as a primary source of good health has now gained traction in schools, where cafeterias are providing healthy options to children; in workplaces, where employers are actually providing monetary incentives to staff to stay healthy; and in the fast food chains, where outlets are offering menus with lower calorie and less fatty foods.
For centuries, food has been a powerful universal language that transcends all borders, cultures, ethnicities, socio-economic categories, and historical backgrounds. Obviously, the time has come for us to give food the accolades it deserves. The world of diplomacy warmly welcomes State-Craft’s little brother, “Food-Craft”, the art of using food to influence hearts and minds.