On Friday evening, a group of more than 50 chefs from around the country gathered at the State Department to celebrate the launch of the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and their role within that as part of the American Chef Corps. While going forward these chefs might help in preparing meals for visiting dignitaries or engaging in cultural exchanges while traveling abroad, mostly it seemed everyone was in town to eat, drink and get this thing off the ground. Here now some hangover observations.
1) Amanda Freitag, Mary Sue Milliken, Art Smith & Wes Morton, Bryan Voltaggio and Peter Callahan were called in to make food for the event, with a cake from Duff Goldman, obviously. DC locals included Pie Sisters, Cowgirl Creamery, DC Brau, a cocktail station manned by Todd Thrasher and team, and more.
2) The State Department has enlisted more than 80 chefs for its new American Chef Corps, more than 55 of whom were at the event on Friday. Among those spotted in the crush: Victor Albisu, José Andrés, Rick Bayless, Richard Blais, Cris Comerford, Enzo Fargione, Todd Gray, David Guas, Rock Harper, Chris Jakubiec, Sam Kass, Anthony Lombardo, Tony Mantuano, Rick Moonen, Kaz Okochi, Naomi Pomeroy, Angelo Sosa, Vikram Sunderam, Robert Weland, Robert Wiedmaier, Bill Yosses.
3) Food critics from across the country milled around the room wearing name tags, including the Washington Post's Tom Sietsema, Katharine Shilcutt of Houston Press and the famously nametag-wearing Hanna Raskin of Seattle Weekly.
1) U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall on making mole with her grandmother, calling out to Rick Bayless: "There's Rick. You've gotta stir that mole slow, right? Exactly."
2) Marshall on a lunch Ming Tsai prepared for Joe Biden and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping: "When we introduced Ming to Vice President Xi and explained that he flew all the way in from Boston for the honor of cooking a meal for this important event, his eyes lit up. You could see on his face, how he responded to Ming, that he was incredibly honored that he put this time and consideration in to make this very important meal between our two nations that much more special."
3) Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was traveling, but spoke to the room via video: "We're here to celebrate something that plays an important role in all of our lives: Food. Now, food isn't traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but I think it's the oldest diplomatic tool. Sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can."
4) Mike Isabella is the very first representative of America as part of the American Chef Corps, so congrats America. Per the James Beard Foundation's Susan Ungaro: "Chef ambassadors. Don't those two words sound exciting? And right? We think so."
5) The "wonderful, ever-so-adorable" White House assistant chef Sam Kass warned the chefs not to cause any international crises, please and thank you: "The stakes are actually quite high. When we now are going out across the world, we're representing the United States of America and we have the ability to transcend and transform all kinds of barriers in a way that I don't think anybody else really does. So when we go off in the world we have to take this seriously. Because if we don't, we make a mistake, the wrong joke, and all of a sudden Capricia's going to be getting calls. There's a crisis, a country is ready to... God knows."
6) Also during Kass' speech, some dissent in the crowd with grumbles of "Oh, come on" and "That's bullshit" in response to: " ....Besides grandmothers, chefs are the only ones with true food knowledge in our country. It's kind of funny, but it's actually true. And this right here is a real responsibility."
7) The 2012 Class of State Chefs, a group that has already participated in public diplomacy programs and will wear fancy navy chef coats, was called to the stage. Only Duff Goldman stopped in the middle of the stage, to blow everyone away with the following profound statement: "This is so cool."
The Quotable José Andrés and Resulting Lovefest
1) José Andrés said that food started to become important in the Clinton White House and not just due to "the times that President Clinton was out for a burger."
2) José Andrés on the longevity of the program: "So long story short, this is nothing that has happened from today to tomorrow. This has been slow in the building, meaning it's very solid. It's been [Secretary Clinton's] leadership, but we need to understand the State Department is many people that are beyond political. ...And everybody at the State Department, the people that are going to stay here beyond who is the person in charge of the State Department believe in this. So this is why I do sincerely believe that this is going to stay here for years to come."
3) Former Think Food Group chef Richard Brandenburg on his old boss Andrés: "He's a good guy. I've got a bigger picture than anybody, I was the corporate chef for all of it, he is a visionary. A lot of people don't understand that. I was with him for three years. And I love this guy."
4) Mary Ellen Taylor of Loudoun County farm Endless Summer Harvest interrupts an interview with José Andrés to talk him up: "He purchases my lettuce and it sustains 12 families in Loudoun Country, Virginia, an hour from our nation's capital. So not only does José believe this in his heart, but he walks it. And I live it. And he sustains my farm."
What the Hell They're Going to be Doing
1) LA chef Mary Sue Milliken tells Eater that she's interested in doing a cultural exchange with women in the kitchen, explaining that a trip to China 12 years ago revealed few women cooking there and her interest in seeing how that's changed. She's also interested in working in Africa.
2) Just that morning, San Francisco chef Mourad Lahlou had done a digital video conference with folks in Tajikistan, telling them about Moroccan American cooking.
3) Several of the chefs, though, didn't seem to have concrete plans and some were not totally sure why they were invited, but were happy to be there anyway.
1) Kaz Okochi just returned from a research trip to the Balkans for friend Ivan Iricanin's forthcoming Ambar — and while these two are partners in Masa 14 and El Centro, Okochi is not involved in the Serbian project. But he notes that he, Iricanin and Richard Sandoval talked a lot about how to introduce Serbian food to an unfamiliar public and mostly found more traditional-style restaurants during their visit.
2) Okochi also said that he was "a little concerned" about the saturation of restaurants on 14th Street, where Masa 14 and El Centro reside.
3) Victor Albisu said his Falls Church taqueria is coming along, but no specific update.