US President Trump’s forthcoming state visit to the UK may only be in the planning stages as yet, but it has already proved to be controversial. A state visit is largely ceremonial but the pomp and pageantry can help to cement relations between two countries – and with Brexit on the horizon, Britain will need all the friends it can muster, especially when it comes to negotiating trade deals.
A state banquet at Buckingham Palace would be a highlight for the new President – assuming London is the main venue for the visit – and would no doubt impress President Trump, who has a liking for glitz and glamour.
So how significant is this sort of food diplomacy? Former French prime minister (2002-2005), Jean-Pierre Raffarin, spoke at EHL recently about the importance of values, etiquette and respect of protocols. As he sees it, hospitality and gastronomy are fundamentals in the world of diplomacy.
The French senate member, who has just chaired an eight-month-long cross-party inquiry into the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, said the world today is changing.
“We are putting the concept of globalization behind us and moving towards (de-globalization) ... Russia, through her expansion strategy and President Putin’s politics, has reinforced the sentiment of nationalism among its people and takes center stage in the game involving countries’ leaders.”
The world is facing upheaval, with Iran seeking to become a nuclear power, he said, and the Brexit referendum in the UK leaving a major question mark hanging over the future of Europe. “And President Donald Trump’s arrival is [creating] immense uncertainty”. Therefore, diplomacy is crucial to maintaining peace and serenity in such a tense world.
The link between diplomacy and gastronomy
For Raffarin, gastronomy gives diplomacy an advantage. Citing the Euro 2016 football tournament, which took place on French soil (and which the French team, he noted, came close to victory), the country showcased French hospitality, with leading chef Joël Robuchon providing his “exceptional gastronomy” at the end of matches. (Robuchon accompanied the French senator during his visit to EHL.)
Raffarin said another former French premier, Laurent Fabius, had once organized – on the same night – some 150 dinners in French embassies around the world, with more than 1,300 chefs preparing the food for the guests who included public figures and political leaders.
Gastronomy, he argued, has served as a means of creating networks and building relationships in a world in which networks are vital.
Diplomacy is all about influence. The French diplomat, Talleyrand (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754 - 1838) used to organize extravagant and lavish banquets in Vienna as a means by which he would try to exert influence through gastronomy and hospitality.
More recently, during French President Jacques Chirac’s time in office from 1995 to 2007, state dinners were staged with 35-40 dishes.
“Because cuisine and gastronomy are part of our culture”, Raffarin told EHL students, “our culture is part of our heritage. Political leaders must be proud of their heritage and this heritage must be shared with the rest of the world.”
The chef, the table and the artistry
According to Raffarin, there are three essential elements to gastronomy: the chef, the table or seating plan, and the creation or artistry.
- The chef is a leader, but the role varies from culture to culture. The American chef learns the profession and is aware of all the techniques. The European chef is an artist. The Chinese chef is a discreet leader, who makes the machine’s wheels turn.
- The table: the seating plan is immensely important. It is true politics. In terms protocol, for example, it doesn’t matter how strong your nation is, but what does matter is one’s seniority as an ambassador. And the more senior an ambassador, the closer he or she is seated to the host. The table is the place where power has influence, where tensions are eased and where relations are built.
- The creation (or artistry): The cuisine is itself a masterpiece. It is founded on three ‘s’s: sincerity, because the masterpiece must be authentic; singularity, as there’s always the artist’s personal touch; and finally the satisfaction of the guest as the client remains the main recipient, the reason why the masterpiece was created in the first place. And this artistry is key to attracting attention, whether in terms of cuisine, or in the fields of politics or economics.
At times there may be cultural differences, such as whether wine should be served at state dinners involving countries like Iran, but by ‘pleasing guests’, nations have the opportunity to exert soft power and bring influence to bear through gastronomy and hospitality. It has worked for centuries and will continue to be the case for centuries to come.