Last Friday marked the official inception of a new joint effort between the State Department and the James Beard Foundation: the American Chef Corps, which is comprised of twenty celebrity chefs. The list includes such luminaries as Jose Andres of D.C.’s Jaleo, April Bloomfield of New York’s Spotted Pig, and Dan Barber, the current patron saint of the farm-to-table movement. Mike Isabella, of Top Chef fame, will be the first “State Chef,” a unfortunately authoritarian title whose vague job description is rather more mellow: The man famous for hooking Washingtonians on “Jersey-Italian” cuisine will “represent America’s food culture abroad.”
To be clear, Isabella will not represent America’s actual food culture. In fact, what the White House and State Department wish to accomplish with the Chef Corps (as part of the larger “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership”) is to rebrand U.S. food culture abroad. Thanks to the many Golden Arches strewn across the globe, the rest of the world has a certain fixed idea about American cuisine, and perhaps Americans more generally: A horde of preservative-popping tramplers of local culture. Unfortunately, Foggy Bottom’s effort to show off the more diverse and human side of the Yankee kitchen seems focused primarily on the $100-a-plate foodie category of culinary life—something out of reach for most Americans, not to mention the foreigners with whom our toque-wearing ambassadors will soon be engaging. […]
Yes, there’s something wholesome and simple and primal about the idea of breaking bread with allies and enemies alike. But the deliciousness of fusion cooking is often a very tasty byproduct of imperial exercises that foreign ministries the world around tend to shy away from discussing. (The folks in charge of France’s global image, you’d imagine, would rather you not think to closely about why, precisely, banh mi is made with baguette bread—just as our State Department might not want officials in Hanoi to remember the events that caused so many banh mi establishments to open up here starting in the mid-70s.)
Even without the backlash of war, there’s other sorts of diplomatic sensitivity to consider. What chunks of this program seem to be doing is telling the rest of the world that we took their stuff—their beloved paellas, their ancient shwarmas, their impeccable terrines, their inventive spice palates—and made it better because we made it modern and American and shiny and expensive. Now, this might very well be true (although I’m pretty sure that’s not the prevailing foodie opinion, both inside and outside these borders). And believing that the New World improves upon the cultural heritage of the Old is at the heart of the American experiment, sure. But we can’t just TELL them that outright. That’s the very worst kind of cultural diplomacy.