An ecstatic Duff Goldman, Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes,” raised his trophy into the air while the State Department’s Chief of Protocol, Capricia Penavic Marshall clapped her hands and guffawed. Alongside them, Jose Andres and Rick Bayless clutched their trophies, grinning happily. The cheering continued as Marshall called each member of the 2012 Class of State Chefs to the stage.
A total of eighty-seven chefs were named to the US Department of State’s American Chef Corps. They’re part of a new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Initiative launched September 7, 2012. In a video message, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explained that the initiative was designed to “strengthen the Department of State’s formal diplomatic engagements with foreign leaders and create cross cultural exchanges between our nation and others around the world.”
Officials hosted this celebration in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Members of the Association of Food Journalists passed through tight security to join foreign dignitaries, food professionals and other press corps on the last night of the AFJ Conference.
For decades, the State Department has been the home of American diplomacy. A select group of elite chefs regularly cook special meals for foreign leaders in the same diplomatic reception rooms. Through this program, members of the American Chef Corps will travel internationally, charged with promoting American cooking and agricultural products in foreign markets.
Clinton’s team explained how chefs would help the State Department further its mission–to expand fellowship using the most basic, yet vital tool—breaking bread together. Marshall says diplomats have always expressed hospitality through meals, and the State Department believes these culinarians’ possess unique skills that allow them to deepen established friendships and bridge cultural divides.
The patriotic reception rooms were decorated in Colonial American style and showcased food-related memorabilia. Lenox displayed china patterns used by six American Presidents. There were photos from State Dinners and of the White House kitchen. A collection of correspondence between world leaders included a letter to President Eisenhower from Queen Elizabeth with her scones recipe.
Even the bathrooms were fit for royalty.
When guests entered the reception, they discovered a feast of finger food: Cowgirl Creamery’s artisan cheeses, Sullivan Street Bakery’s small-batch breads, and charcuterie from Creminelli Fine Meats. DCBrau sampled its craft beer, and the bar featured boutique American wines and hard cider.
The merriment increased as the party moved into the Benjamin Franklin Room, where cocktails flowed and food dazzled. Famous chefs and restaurateurs served up their specialties—Art Smith, of Art and Soul, dished plates of roasted farro salad with Carolina swordfish. Amanda Freitag, judge of ‘Chopped,’ alternated between tweeting and disbursing blue crab crostini. Todd Thrasher, mixologist at Restaurant Eve in Virginia, supplied guests a gin drink that was dangerously delicious. For caffeine cravers, lead sponsor Mars Candy dispensed spicy hot cocoa.
Around the room, foodies swooned, as renowned chefs like Bryan Voltaggio, Peter Callahan and Mary Sue Milliken constructed small plates from their celebrated repertoire. Milliken served heirloom bean and bacon tostada, and Voltaggio treated guests to succulent bison short ribs from a local farm. Outside, on a sprawling rooftop terrace, revelers snapped photos and noshed sweets from the dessert table featuring Dolcezza’s artisan gelatos and Pie Sisters’ bite-sized pastries.
After Marshall introduced the State Department’s Culinary Ambassadors, Susan Ungaro of the Beard Foundation joined her on stage. The Beard Foundation is another branch of the diplomatic partnership—bringing their members’ expertise and resources to the effort. Finally, Sam Kass, one of three current White House Chefs inducted into the Chef Corps, shared President Obama’s support of the initiative.
As this memorable night drew to a close, lingering guests nibbled slices of Charm City Cakes’ world-shaped confection. We left the State Department to return to a sweltering Washington night carrying party favors—food treats wrapped in a huge pie pan.
Freelance writer and photographer specializing in vivid, deeply reported stories about food, travel and family.