by Max Entman
In the last decade, the definition of cultural diplomacy has been expanding. This expansion has been especially noticeable in the realm of the culinary arts. The recent launch of the “Diplomatic Culinary Partnership” by the U.S. Department of State is one of many examples of this phenomenon. Though food has featured to some degree in traditional diplomacy for centuries, these new initiatives go beyond state dinners to harness the power of food as an instrument of cultural engagement. Beyond creating sustained cultural engagement around food, these new efforts can also play an important role in raising the profile of policy challenges that align with the interests of a new generation of culinary diplomats.
Why this focus on food now? One key reason is the explosion of the celebrity chef phenomenon during the past decade. Around the world, chefs have stepped out from the behind the stove to become media moguls and full-fledged entertainment personalities. This raises the question of how particular chefs may fit into existing thinking about the impact of so-called celebrity diplomats. Professor Andrew Cooper has done the definitive work in this field. In a recent article on the topic, Cooper suggests that “the feature that does more to define celebrity diplomats than anything else is their focus on access to state leaders and key ministerial and bureaucratic policymakers.” As a result, Cooper argues that only three celebrities – Bono, George Clooney and Angelina Jolie – have achieved true celebrity diplomat status, whereas other politically active celebrities are merely activists. However, the emergence of a variety of renowned chefs as government-affiliated advocates may challenge this assertion.
The person that best personifies this new chef-as-diplomat archetype is José Andrés. Based in DC by way of Asturias, Spain, Andrés is widely credited with popularizing Spanish cuisine in the U.S. In addition to a growing restaurant empire and successful TV shows in the states and in Spain, Andrés is a leading member of the State Department’s American Chef Corps and the founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that seeks to combat hunger. Andrés was also recognized recently as an “embajador de la marca de España” (honorary ambassador of the Spanish brand) by the Leading Brands of Spain Forum, a government-affiliated organization.
In both his adopted home and in his country of origin, government officials have taken note of Andrés’ leadership in both the culinary and development fields. For the United States, Andrés is a valuable partner because his gastronomic renown and his personal commitment to addressing development challenges make him a strong non-traditional advocate on development policy issues including the alleviation of hunger. In essence, his fame for haute cuisine can be leveraged to raise the profile of development issues (e.g. clean cookstoves) among audiences that may not be moved to action otherwise. For Spain, as his brand ambassador award suggests, Chef Andrés serves a simpler nation-branding
function by elevating the worldwide prestige of Spanish cuisine. These examples suggest that Andrés
has the very type of access which Professor Cooper says is the defining feature of celebrity diplomats, if perhaps at a lower level than Bono. Though Andrés is the most prominent example, numerous other chefs have developed similar relationships with government leaders that open the potential of their serving as diplomatic actors.
In the piece referenced above, Andrew Cooper concludes by saying “[t]he major questions will be whether the small cluster of top-tier celebrity diplomats will expand, and whether they will supplement their fresh sense of energy with a repertoire of enhanced substantive content.” Although he is best known for his avant-garde interpretations of Spanish cuisine, Andrés’ substantive efforts to combat global hunger and environmental degradation suggest that the expansion of celebrity diplomacy surrounding development policy issues may be starting with chefs.