American Chefs Become “Culinary Ambassadors”

A lot of us who write about food struggle with the idea of authenticity. Can Thai food cooked in Los Angeles be authentically Thai, or is it by definition an expression of American food? Can ramen with stock made by French methods properly be called ramen? Personally, I think adaptation—foreign-born cuisines reinterpreted with American ingredients—is the one constant in American food. It sounds like the U.S. State Department agrees.

In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Tom Sietsema wrote about a new program of unpaid “culinary ambassadors,” American restaurant chefs who’ll travel overseas to “use food as a diplomatic tool.” They’ll be part of something called the American Chef Corps. Its mission: to show off American foods and cooking in foreign capitals.

Organized with help from the James Beard Foundation, the complete 20-plus roster in the American Chef Corps is due to be announced in Washington on September 7. It looks like a prime collection: José Andrés, Rick Bayless (pictured), April Bloomfield (she cooked for the British prime minister last March). Also Ming Tsai—he’ll make lunch for the president of China next February.

Naturally, these so-called State Chefs will show off the sort of hybrid cooking we’re used to in the U.S. Bayless could take his adaptation of snapper Veracruz to Mexico, say, or Bloomfield her cardamom-spiced rhubarb fool to the U.K. (let’s hope Tsai doesn’t bust out his signature Asian fusion to the Chinese; who knows, his wasabi-avocado crema could stiffen relations). Giving U.S. restaurant chefs an official government platform sounds like a good way to improve the quality of state dinners, and an even better way to raise the status of American food—authentic American food.

Photo of Rick Bayless by Flickr member citymama under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.