Mike Isabella originally intended to leave for Greece and Turkey last week for 15 days of research in anticipation of his forthcoming restaurant, Kapnos. But when his country called, the former “Top Chef” contestant and creator of Graffiato and Bandolero in Washington added some embassy stops and restaurant and vendor meetings to his overseas itinerary.
Isabella is one of the first chefs to be tapped by the State Department to serve as a culinary ambassador abroad, part of an ambitious new undertaking to use food as a diplomatic tool. Initiated by the U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall and blessed by her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership aims to “elevate the role of culinary engagement in America’s formal and public diplomacy efforts,” according to a mission statement.
The initiative, in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, named for the late dean of American cooking, will be officially announced at the State Department on Sept. 7 at a reception featuring some of the nation’s premiere chefs and pedigreed products. “James used to say, ‘Food is our common ground,’” says foundation president Susan Ungaro. “He would be thrilled” by chefs “getting recognition in ways they never have before.”
The wide-ranging effort creates an American Chef Corps, a network of culinary leaders who could be deployed to promote U.S. cooking and agricultural products abroad. “They might meet with an embassy, cook a lunch, post blogs or [write] articles, speak at events,” says Marshall, listing the many ways participants might engage.
American chefs who aspire to medals from the James Beard Foundation and to stars from Michelin now have something else to aim for: navy-blue jackets set off with an American flag, the seal of the State Department and their names embroidered in gold on the front. The State Chef designation will be reserved for industry members who have distinguished themselves by, say, serving a meal for the State Department or hosting a foreign delegation.
Rock Harper is proof that chefs don’t need a passport to earn the honor. The director of kitchen operations at DC Central Kitchen plans to introduce chefs, teachers and journalists from around the world to his culinary job training and food recycling operation Sept. 7. “This is not just a photo op,” says Harper of his three-hour plans for the State Department guests. “They’re going to get their hands dirty” by cooking free meals for the disadvantaged.
Among the other 20-plus soon-to-be anointed State Chefs — the full roster will be revealed Sept. 7 — are the Washington area’s Jose Andres, who cooked for the 50th anniversary of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms last year; former White House chef Walter Scheib; Vikram Sunderam, who introduced local schoolchildren to “A Taste of India” at a cultural exchange at Blair House three years ago; and Bryan Voltaggio, who prepared a three-course dinner for Japan’s prime minister at the National Geographic Museum in April; plus the traveling Isabella. Headliners from elsewhere include British-born chef April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York, who made lunch for the British prime minister in March, and Mexican-food maestro Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. Bayless cooked at the Obama administration’s second state dinner in 2010, for the Mexican president.