Remarks at the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership - Milan Expo Reception

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
April 21, 2015

AMBASSADOR SELFRIDGE: Ladies and gentlemen, your excellencies, distinguished guests, welcome to the Department of State for tonight’s celebration of culinary diplomacy. The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership and the American Chef Corps are some of the most unique and delicious programs we have here at State. While they might not be our most traditional ambassadors, these chefs are diplomats in the truest sense of the word. They foster cross-cultural exchange by interacting with people all over the globe. They advance economic diplomacy by promoting American food products. They increase travel and tourism by promoting the United States as an international culinary destination. And finally, they elevate formal diplomacy through their assistance in entertaining world leaders here at home.

And speaking of leaders, I now have the honor to introduce the Secretary of State to speak a little bit about – more about the impact of this special program and its effect on diplomacy. With that, Mr. Secretary. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much, Ambassador Selfridge, very much. He’s our chief of protocol, so he makes sure everybody gets to the right place at the right moment – usually. (Laughter.)

Really, good evening and welcome to the State Department, to the Ben Franklin room. I am thrilled to see all these chefs standing here tonight. We are really honored to have you here. I want to thank – you are our guests of honor – the American Chef Corps, dozens of American chefs who lend their time to Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. And I’ve been able to enjoy the pleasure of your gifts of doing a meal for us in our diplomatic settings, one or the other. I want you to know that we are very, very grateful to you for the contribution you make, and I’ll say a little more about that in a moment.

I love that what we’re celebrating – food and the ability to do diplomacy in conjunction with food – as a child, the only celebrity chef that I heard of was named Boyardee. (Laughter.) And in college I lived on potato chips and pizza and all the normal stuff. I know Ambassador Selfridge is going to present awards momentarily, and unfortunately I will have to go to yet another event this evening, and I apologize for that. But I want to congratulate each and every one of the winners. I think we have over 50 tonight – over 50 of the country’s top chefs with us. And will tell you, as somebody who has worked hard to get 28 NATO countries in one room, getting all of you here is a big deal, and everybody joins me in saying thank you for it. We are very appreciative. (Applause.)

I want to thank Susan Ungaro and the James Beard Foundation for their partnership, both through the American Chef Corps and also on the USA pavilion in the Milan Expo, and I’ll talk about that in a few moments, if I can. I want to thank our cosponsors for this evening, Mars Incorporated and Chenier Energy.

And finally, I want to welcome a lot of members of the diplomatic corps – ambassador from Canada, ambassador from France, other ambassadors here. If I start leveling out all of them, I’m in trouble, but there’s one I’m going to particularly single out, and you all will allow me that privilege. It is Ambassador Bisogniero of Italy, who will be hosting, obviously, Milan. Claudio, thank you so much for being here tonight, and we’re happy to have you. (Applause.)

I also want you all to welcome and say thank you to an old friend of mine who’d taken on the task of being the commissioner to the Milan Expo. And I just swore him in as an ambassador today, and that is our Ambassador Doug Hickey, who’s over here, and you all can say hello to him. (Applause.)

And we have a lot of government officials who’ve joined us tonight. I know that when they heard that we were serving hors d’oeuvres by Jose Andres and Vikram Sunderam and Isabella – Mike Isabella, Peter Callahan, Jamie Leeds – this was not a tough sell, folks. (Laughter.) People have been sneaking in through the back doors. There we go, see? We’ve got a few sneak-ins here. I want to – it’s all right. I can call them out on it. (Laughter.)

I want to tell you something: I love to cook. I just had the opportunity to meet with all the chefs downstairs for a moment, and I really do love to cook. And obviously, in this job, I don’t get time to cook. It’s not a cooking kind of job. (Laughter.) Different kind of cooking. But it takes time to cook. You have to really appreciate it. You have to love – you have to go out and buy the things you want and prepare them all properly and then take the time with good friends to really enjoy it.

But when I was practicing law in Boston, one night I went out to dinner at a restaurant right near where my law office was, and I was bored stiff practicing law privately. And this friend of mine and I clearly had at least one good bottle of wine too many, and when we came out after dinner I was craving a chocolate chip cookie. And this has been a craving all my life. Those who know me well know I am a cookie freak. And so we said, “Wow, there’s nowhere in Boston down here where we can buy a great cookie late at night.” And I looked over in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, for those of you who know the place, and there was an open stall in there. And so we just sort of decided on the spot – we said, “Look, we’ve got to open a place where we can get a cookie. This is totally ridiculous.”

And the next morning, as a bored lawyer, I found myself in the office of the Rouse Company from Baltimore – in Boston – negotiating for the space. And they said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to bake cookies and sell them.” They said, “No, we’ve got too much fast food here. We can’t do that.” And I said, “Well, what do you want?” They said, “Well, we really want a gourmet establishment.” I said, “That’s exactly what we want. That’s what we want to be. We want to be a gourmet establishment, so we’re going to do gourmet cookies” – (laughter) – “and great brownies and macaroons and things like that.”

So literally they were crazy. They signed the deal; I signed the deal. About two months later, after I had ordered my Hobart mixer and all my different accoutrements – a fancy new stove that cooked in a way that you put it in, you saw it come out at the other end; it was marvelous, not unlike those of you who remember David’s Cookies in New York. And so I was having these great visions of 40 stores in 40 cities very quickly, and I suddenly realized, “You know what? I don’t have any menus. I don’t have any recipes. We’ve got to find a way to do this quick.” So I literally went home, and on my home stove I started baking as many different chocolate chip versions as I could make, and then learned about the exponential aggrandizement of a recipe as you try to make it work with a big Hobart mixer and make it happen.

Lo and behold, we actually came up – by cribbing a little bit off the back of a Toll House cookie thing and working with – (laughter) – working very cleverly with molasses and pure Lindt chocolate and the best butter we could find and so on, we made a great cookie. And we opened on time, and so help me God, within one year we had won the Best of Boston and the store is still in Faneuil Hall Marketplace today and still making cookies. (Applause.)

So there is – so I actually know what it’s like to rush out of the office and make sure we have enough flour on hand and do all the rest of this. It was great, great fun, and I actually learned an enormous amount, frankly, about small business and part-time employees and health inspectors and paying your taxes – (laughter) – and all those good things.

There is absolutely something about good food that brings people together, and that’s what diplomacy is all about. And I have just returned from my 60th trip as Secretary of State. I’ll tell you, on many of those trips, without any question, the meals that I’ve shared with various foreign counterparts have been often the best part. But invariably, they are a critical part of our ability to be able to do business and talk and break bread and break down barriers and listen to each other and understand culture, history, and really dig underneath all the policy issues. The – literally some of the most candid and productive conversations that I have had have been over a good meal in somebody’s country.

Last fall, I hosted China’s state councilor, Councilor Yang, in Boston for what ended up being a three-hour lunch at Legal Seafoods. And Roger Berkowitz is here somewhere, the owner of – there he is over there – Legal Seafoods. And we were overlooking Boston Harbor, and we’d spent a full day up there together talking, and we were working through a lot of issues. But it was over this meal I was able to point out to Boston Harbor and talk about what we’d done to clean up the harbor and how you can take an issue and change it, and we were talking about climate change. That became a foundation for our ability, ultimately, when I went to Beijing to be able to negotiate with them a landmark deal between China and the United States, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters. We came to an agreement, and I tell you, Roger, that setting and that meal were critical in helping people to understand the mutual interest that we shared in that. We – I think people connect in unique and powerful ways over food, and often you can make progress around a dinner table that you can’t make around a conference table. A little good wine doesn’t hurt either, for those who drink it.

The important role that food plays in diplomacy is one of the reasons that we joined with the James Beard Foundation to launch the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership in 2012. And the chefs that we have on board as part of our American Chef Corps help us share diverse American culinary traditions with the world. And along with our remarkable team here from the State Department, as well as – we have White House chefs here tonight also – we’re very grateful for what they do every day, day in and out, to help us do this. A couple of weeks ago, one of our chefs – Mike Isabella, who owns and operates some fantastic restaurants here in Washington – prepared an extraordinary meal in honor of the president of Afghanistan and his delegation. Time and again, American chefs volunteer their time and their talent in this endeavor.

But the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership is about more than exceptional catering. Our chefs have actually become culinary ambassadors. They host visiting chefs and restauranteurs from places like Algeria, Colombia, the Czech Republic. They travel abroad to bring their expertise to chefs and citizens around the world. And to date, American chefs have visited more than 30 countries in service of this specific partnership. When they travel, they actually wind up doing remarkable things. Last year, one our chefs, Mary Sue Milliken, went to Islamabad, where she spent several days with a famous Pakistani chef, Chef Shai. And they explored the country; they met with local chefs and food entrepreneurs, and they filmed a six-episode miniseries focused on these two women cooking side by side, sharing their respective culinary traditions.

On top of that, Mary Sue and Shai also taught a program of live classes targeted at Pakistani audiences. They taught one class, for example, to young mothers who wanted to learn how to cook nutritious food that their kids would actually want to eat. And they taught a group of budding entrepreneurs who loved to cook and wanted to learn how they could build a career that incorporated their passion. And between the classes and the televised miniseries, Mary Sue’s visit literally reached millions of people.

Another of our chef partners, Art Smith, had a different but equally impactful experience when he traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2013. He met with Arab and Jewish chefs, restaurant owners, everyday people who had a passion for food. And he cooked a number of meals with the folks that he met abroad, molding the traditions that they had with – that they had grown up – that he had grown up with in the American South. And I think it’s safe to say it was probably the first time that some of the people that he had dined with had ever tasted authentic grits and gravy. (Laughter.) And at the end of the trip, Art joined with Israeli and Palestinian chefs to prepare a meal at an event cosponsored by our embassy and consulate. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that this experience only reinforced in him the notion that there are no truly angry people in the world, just hungry people. (Laughter.) So these are two impactful examples of the ways in which food and chefs and this whole program can make a difference in the world and break down the barriers. The truth is that they have built bilateral relationships in ways that an assistant secretary of state or myself wouldn’t necessarily have the time to do or be able to do.

In addition to supporting American diplomacy, these chefs are also helping American businesses. For example, chef Marc Murphy visited our embassy in Rome around Thanksgiving one year, hosted an incredible holiday feast for dozens of food importers, journalists, and Italian officials. It was an opportunity to literally bring the Italian folks in and educate them and share with them the whole experience of Thanksgiving, where we have our own special traditions, but also highlighting a number of agricultural exports from the United States. And it worked. Exports went up for every single product that Marc featured during his visit.

I had the opportunity, as I mentioned earlier, to say a couple words and chat and take a photo with all the chefs here tonight. I know this matters to each and every one of them, or they wouldn’t be here. They’re as committed to American diplomacy as any group of people I’ve ever met, and they’re doing a terrific job of representing us abroad, folks. Now we’re asking them to represent us again at a very special event in the course of this summer and into the fall: as our culinary ambassadors to the upcoming World’s Fair, the Milan Expo 2015, which actually opens just 10 days from now. As many of you know, the theme of this year’s World’s Fair is “Feeding the Planet.” And we have a remarkable USA pavilion that will help us demonstrate all that we are doing and all that we hope to do in order to find solutions to food security for the 21st century.

Food security is going to be greatly challenged by climate change. Crops that grow one place today may not grow there in the future. Water may be scarce. Drought in certain parts of our country is affecting farming, affecting people’s choices in their back yard and their ability to have a garden and so forth. By 2050, there will be an expected 9 billion people on this planet. In the not-so-distant future, my friends, global food security is going to be something that demands our attention not then, but now. And I am grateful that our hosts in Milan have decided to make this the focus of this expo.

So I want to take this opportunity to thank our USA pavilion sponsors, some of whom are here tonight. They’ve made it for us – possible for us to be able to prepare many informative, interactive, and interesting exhibits, and we have a spectacular pavilion there, the outside of which – the wall going up to the top is actually a growing garden or farm space, if you will. We’re expecting this pavilion to attract millions of visitors. Already some 2 million tickets have been sold in China. There’ll be 10 million or more, I think, sold overall. There’ll be more than 20, 25, 30 million people visiting. It’ll become a major event and a major attraction on a global basis. And we are expecting this to include government leaders, business executives, global experts, and frankly, we could not have done this without all of you.

As part of our presence at the Expo, our chefs are going to help us raise awareness about the health qualities and the safety qualities of American food. We’re going to showcase American innovation and technology and promote our agricultural products and trade. And everybody involved in our pavilion and our visiting chefs are going to help us explore the future of the global food system and participate in discussions on things as simple as labeling, school lunches, working with others from around the world to figure out ways that chefs can help drive sustainability and help us protect the entire food chain.

Now, we are convinced that this cadre of chefs who’re going to take part in this – and many of whom are not here tonight – will absolutely raise global awareness about the extraordinary quality of American culinary taste and capacity. And I’ve reminded you a lot about food, talked a lot about food, and I know that since there’s a lot of food within a couple of feet of you, this is risky if I go on much longer. (Laughter.) So I want to raise a glass – I don’t have an appropriate glass here of whatever. I don’t think you do either. I don’t see a lot of glasses.

So when I’m gone, when you get a glass – (laughter) – raise a toast appropriately – there you go. Gary Doer, our ambassador from Canada is well equipped. He’s got his glass. So there you are. So here, ladies and gentlemen, is to the extraordinary contribution of our chefs. Thank you for feeding us, thank you for helping to promote our country, thank you for making us proud. And we look forward to seeing you in Milan. Here, here. Thank you. (Applause.)