AMBASSADOR GIFFORD: Good evening, good evening. You never want a speaking program to get in the way of the food, especially on a night like tonight. But really, what a treat to see everybody here tonight. Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the U.S. Department of State.
For those of you who I don’t – who I don’t know, I am Rufus Gifford. I am chief of Protocol of the United States, and I’m just so, so thrilled to see this group here tonight to relaunch the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. At the – yes. (Applause.) At the State Department, we know that the heart of diplomacy is so much more than words, meetings, and moments alone. It is about creating the environment that brings us together to overcome barriers and sharing a bit of the best of your culture, which create foundations for dialogue and discussion.
There is a reason why so much of our diplomatic work occurs around a lunch or a dinner table. Food serves as one of our most important tools to build bridges, create connections, and deepen relationships. This is a personal passion of mine. While serving as an ambassador overseas and again through this program, I have sought to tell a story about the U.S. in part through the richness and diversity of our culinary traditions – a richness and diversity that the chefs right here in this room represent. And through the culinary – Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, we will seek to do just this.
We are honored to be joined in this endeavor by the James Beard Foundation, America’s preeminent culinary arts organization. Firsthand, we in the Office of Protocol and the broader State Department have seen the organization’s dedication to making America’s food culture more diverse and sustainable for everyone, and there is no organization that has a better finger on the pulse of American cuisine.
Through this initiative, we will seek to find innovative ways of embracing food, hospitality, and community as diplomatic tools to engage world leaders, further cross-cultural dialogue, and strengthen our bilateral relationships, all the while having a little bit of fun and creating a little bit of joy. And we’re lucky to be supported by so many of you in this room. Thank you to our Kitchen Cabinet tonight who are here in attendance. (Applause.) Also thank you to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and the American Master Chefs’ Order for supporting this evening’s festivities. (Applause.)
And tonight, as you can see through their amazing jackets, which I love, members of the American Culinary Corps will be on the front lines of impacting and reinvigorating the State Department’s culinary diplomacies. So please join me in welcoming and thanking the American Culinary Corps. (Applause.)
Now, José Andrés, a member of the American Culinary Corps and the Kitchen Cabinet, was unable to be present in this room tonight as he is on the ground in Türkiye supporting the humanitarian efforts following the devastating earthquake. However, he has a few words he’d like to share by video. Pull that up.
(The video was played.)
AMBASSADOR GIFFORD: We are so grateful for José’s global contributions to making the world a better place and so thrilled to have him join the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. And in closing, let me thank you again all so much for being here tonight. We’re truly thrilled to see you. And as one of the most prominent of American icons, as also a bit of an American food diplomat, Julia Child said, quote, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” (Laughter.) So thank you, and without further delay it is my honor to introduce the CEO of the James Beard Foundation, Clare Reichenbach. (Applause.)
MS REICHENBACH: Thank you so much, Ambassador Gifford. Here’s to the good people. (Laughter.) It is such a great honor – the best people. It’s such a great honor for the James Beard Foundation to be embarking upon this Diplomatic Culinary Partnership with the U.S. Department of State and be launching the new American Culinary Corps today.
Our mantra at the James Beard Foundation is Good Food for Good, and this program feels like a wonderful expression of that. Together we have created a remarkable group of chefs and culinary professionals who represent the rich culinary tapestry and panoply of foodways in this country. These individuals are industry leaders and the embodiment of the foundation’s mission and values, many of whom are with us this evening donning their finely – their newly minted official blue jackets. And they look terribly smart, I must say. (Laughter.)
Together we recognize the power of food in cultivating human connection, and as a compelling expression of heritage and culture. A shared meal and the story behind the plate can foster real empathy, can engender cross-cultural understanding and recognition of where we have been and where we are going as a society. As José Andrés quoted, James Beard himself said, “Food is our common ground. It is a universal experience.” And we are so excited to harness that principle through this program in support of the State Department’s important culinary diplomacy efforts, and indeed to give this network of chefs a unique opportunity to showcase their cuisine and craft on behalf of this great nation.
So a profound thank you to the U.S. Department of State for this inspiring opportunity. We are so proud and honored to work with you as we embark on this new culinary corps. And we thank you – we thank the incredible chefs and culinary professionals who continue to tell their story and that of their communities through food.
And now it is my great privilege to introduce the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Good evening, everyone.
PARTICIPANTS: Good evening.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It is wonderful to have you here at the State Department, to have you here in the Ben Franklin Room, and to launch – or relaunch – what is for us a truly wonderful initiative.
Now, I have to tell you something. Most evenings in this building do not begin with servings of salty caramel ice cream or frosé sorbet. (Laughter.) But we’re very glad that tonight does, and I do want to thank the James Beard-winning Jeni Britton for providing for us tonight. Jeni, thank you. (Applause.)
And we are here with an absolutely extraordinary group of accomplished chefs: Marjorie Meek-Bradley, Tanya Holland, Edward Lee, Gregory Gourdet, Karen Akunowicz, Kwame Onwuachi, Carl Dooley, others that I can’t begin to name because time would not allow it. But let me simply say this: If this were a quickfire challenge, it would end with Padma Lakshmi telling me to “please pack my knives and go.” (Laughter.)
We are grateful to everyone who prepared the amazing food that we’ve enjoyed tonight. A special thanks to our student chefs. Where are you? (Applause.) Student chefs from the American Culinary Federation – Isaiah, Sirius, Alexis, Barbara – you represent the next generation of the culinary profession, and the diversity, creativity, and sheer talent that you bring show us that it’s a bright future indeed – and a delicious one, so thank you.
Thank you also, Clare, to you, to the James Beard Foundation, our partner in the Diplomatic Culinary Program; and to Ambassador Gifford and our Protocol team, whose care and whose attention to detail are indispensable to the work that we do every day.
And, of course, a very warm welcome to members of the diplomatic corps here today. Now, I don’t know why they chose this particular event to join us – (laughter) – but I’m greatly appreciative of their presence here today.
So we are, as I mentioned, in the Ben Franklin Room. You can see Ben Franklin looking down on us over there, America’s first diplomat. He was known for aphorisms like, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” (Laughter.) When it came to food, he was actually a little bit more restrained, saying things like, “Eat to live, not live to eat.” But I think we can forgive him, because he lived in Philadelphia before Michael Solomonov got there. (Laughter.) Then it would have been “live to eat,” or “a Federal Donut a day keeps the doctor away.” (Laughter.)
I happen to have experienced that firsthand. In fact, I was actually telling Michael when we visited Federal Donuts there was one terrible thing that happened. We came away with a wonderful box of donuts; somehow, between the time that we got back to the plane and I was ready to dig into one of the donuts – somehow in that time the donuts were no longer there. (Laughter.) So I need a repeat visit.
But you all know this: Food has been an integral part of the American story. Our culinary traditions show who we are, where we came from, and what we cherish. Many of our most iconic chefs are beloved as much for their food as they are for their courage, enabling future generations to bring their whole selves to the kitchen.
Discrimination prevented James Beard from doing that in his lifetime, but today, his foundation works to ensure that chefs are judged on the food they prepare – not who they are, what they look like, who they love. That’s a mission that so many chefs here tonight are carrying forth.
In the diversity of America’s cuisine and our greatest chefs, we see a reflection of our identity as a nation of immigrants – a land enriched by a beautiful fusion of ideas, of traditions, and tastes.
As the Frenchman Brillat-Savarin put it, “Tell me what you eat…I’ll tell you who you are.” Another great philosopher of our times, who some of you would have seen on the show Ted Lasso – (laughter) – would say that football is life. Well, food is life.
It’s also, as you heard from Ambassador Gifford, one of the oldest tools of our diplomacy. When we break bread with people, we learn something about each other in ways that transcend divisions of geography or language. In my own time as a diplomat, I have found that sitting down for a meal with my counterparts has often led to conversations, candor, exchanges that simply don’t happen when you’re in a conference room, a board room, in an official formal environment. Put another way, sometimes diplomacy gets more done effectively at the dining room table than at the conference table, and I’ve witnessed that, experienced that myself.
Here at the State Department, cultural diplomacy has long been a pillar of our work. We run programs to harness the power of art, music, sports, education, and – of course – cuisine, and that helps us connect with other communities and other countries.
So today, alongside the James Beard Foundation – and with a special thanks to the advisory group that you’ve already heard reference to, the “Kitchen Cabinet” – we are excited to be launching the next generation of the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. This program is going to bring American chefs into our diplomatic events, from embassy receptions to state dinners. It will give foreign visitors and dignitaries a chance to learn about the history of American cuisine and quite literally get a taste of our culture. And it will promote American food abroad, introducing our products, our restaurants, flavorful innovations to people around the world.
At the heart of this initiative is the new American Culinary Corps. We have enlisted more than 80 of our nation’s most talented chefs, reflecting the rich diversity of our nation and our food. Many of them already run restaurants or kitchens that serve as ambassadors for their own communities and a slice of American cuisine. Now, what we’re asking them to do is to work on a global scale, to use their incredible gifts to act as citizen diplomats – traveling, cooking, sharing our traditions one meal at a time.
The Culinary Corps represent the best of the American food scene, and we are thrilled to partner with some truly extraordinary chefs. I think some 50 or more of our colleagues are here with us tonight at the State Department. Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Applause.)
Now again, I can’t single out everyone tonight, but let me just mention a few people – chefs like Christine Ha, who is breaking barriers as a blind chef, a woman of color, an advocate for other chefs with disabilities, and a mastermind behind two award-winning Vietnamese restaurants.
Sean Sherman, who is preserving and revitalizing indigenous ingredients and techniques by creating dishes like compote made with wild manzanita berries and acorns. Sign me up for that. (Laughter.)
Kevin Tien, executive chef at D.C.’s Moon Rabbit – which he calls a love-letter to his heritage as a first generation Asian American – and a co-founder of Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate. I know that many members of the American Culinary Corps are involved with this program and recently hosted a benefit dinner to support families that were affected by the horrific mass shooting that we experienced in Monterey Park.
Last month in Chicago, I had the opportunity to visit Eli’s Cheesecake Company. Now, some of you may have experienced Eli’s cheesecake in the past. In fact, the entire trip to Chicago was an excuse to go to Eli’s. (Laughter.) But true to its name, Eli’s makes incredible cheesecake. But what’s even more remarkable is the team making those cheesecakes – a third of whom are refugees. And I got a chance to visit the production line and meet some of these remarkable people.
Supporting the next generation of American citizens is a value that’s as fundamentally American as cheesecake itself. And Eli’s reminds us that good food is as much about what’s in our hearts as what’s in our stomachs.
So I am confident that the chefs of the American Culinary Corps will continue in that spirit as they share their skills, promote our values, and forge new bonds between our country and communities around the world.
To each and every one of you who’s participating as one of our new ambassadors, thank you. To all of you here tonight, thank you for joining us. We have a little bit of business to take care of in the signing of this Memorandum of Understanding, and then we’ll get out of the way so that people can keep drinking and eating. (Laughter.)
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: The Memorandum of Understanding being signed today formalizes the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership between the United States Department of State and the James Beard Foundation. This partnership will endeavor to advance public diplomacy through food and hospitality and bridge cultures through the culinary arts.
(The Memorandum of Understanding was signed.)
MODERATOR: This concludes today’s MOU signing ceremony. Please continue to enjoy the reception. Thank you.