A study dedicated to the dining tables of serving diplomats and their kitchens
For WePresent by WeTransfer the studio took a close look at ‘diplomatic dining’ by venturing inside Embassies, High Commissions; their kitchens and dining rooms, and consulting with serving diplomats. The photography punctuated essay celebrated how the power of eating together has set the tone for how nations coexist and evolve together.
“Dining is the soul of diplomacy” - Lord Palmerston, former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister
Explore the publication here.
A fundamental centrepiece
The conversations we have while sharing a meal can be part of some of the most important of our lives. Look behind the scenes of major upheavals, wars and ideological disputes and you’ll often find a carefully crafted meal bringing the protagonists together.
Many decisions which have had an enormous historical consequence have been made across the dining table and or over a drink. From the Last Supper and Jesus’ betrayal to the scallops and turbot served by the European Commission to former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in December 2020, during 11th-hour negotiations on Brexit, much of which hinged on European rights to British fishing waters.
Eminent gastronomic examples
States have long known the importance of gastrodiplomacy. Bompas & Parr's interest peaked when we worked with DEFRA to host Spirited Forecast in the British Embassy in Tokyo which heroed British product for export by colliding mixology and meteorology. The embassy became a micro-climate of British weather and produce. Guests went on a gustatory journey around the British Isles – featuring a Welsh whisky tornado, English sparkling wine bubbles, Scottish lightning gin and a Northern Irish gin whirlpool, providing ample content, stories and insight into gin and Sino-British partnership.
Napoleon’s first minister Talleyrand employed Marie-Antoine Carême, arguably the world’s best chef to woo the stomach’s of foreign dignitaries The chef opined, “Culinary art serves as the escort to European diplomacy”. More recently countries like South Korea have been terrifically successful in their projection of cultural influence through the growing global importance of their cuisine. Talleyrand, credited with the rise of the diplomatic banquet, once told Napoleon Bonaparte: “Give me a good chef and I shall give you good treaties.”
Is the spoon mightier than the sword?
The power behind the plate and the underlying psychology of shared dining has been shown again and again to be an art form of the most exquisite nature. For centuries, the dining table has been recognized as a unique forum where negotiations can be fought, differences settled and relationships sealed.
Diplomatic dining has been deployed as a political tool before, during and after many of the major upheavals, wars and ideological disputes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today it continues to be a useful diplomatic mechanic between nations, in the interests of maintaining cordial and constructive working relationships – although it would be facile to suggest it could be a panacea for the scale of some of the problems the world is facing right now.
Dining together, it might be said, is not just about food, but how the hormones and emotions unleashed by consuming it in a shared forum can influence the way we think and respond. Be it state banquet or low-key embassy supper, dining together tends to demand voices be lowered and swords left at the door. The 19th-century British statesman and prime minister Viscount Palmerston referred to dining as the “soul of diplomacy”. It was Winston Churchill, a famous bon vivant, who ultimately coined it “dinner diplomacy”.
The power of gastrodiplomacy
“Reason should direct, appetite should obey” - Cicero
It doesn’t always have positive outcomes. Adolf Hitler used a veil of civility presented by dining to force the hand of his guest, Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, during a dinner at the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps in February 1938. After a genial start, the dining table, set with fine linens and Swastika-clad crockery, became a bullying pulpit from which Hitler outlined his ambitions for Austria, presenting a list of non-negotiable demands for how the country should concede independence. After schweinwürst and sauerkraut, von Schuschnigg had little choice but to agree to the complete integration of Austria into the German state.
Despite the best of intentions, things can, and will, go awry at what can be sensitive moments. During a visit to Japan by then US President George H. W. Bush in 1992, he made history by vomiting on the prime minister of Japan. The faux pas, during a state dinner, is thought to have set US-Japanese relations back several years and made Bush a target for disdain in Japan.
Notwithstanding global acts of aggression and aggrandisement that require being dealt with in hard-power political and military terms, diplomatic dining will likely continue to be valued for its soft power. Its ability to bring different nations, viewpoints and opinions to the table, using the principles of appeal and attraction, reinforces the tone for how most nations coexist and evolve together.
As Anthony Bourdain neatly summed it up: “Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it's a good start.”
Bompas & Parr are grateful to the Ambassadors, High Commissioners and diplomatic staff who facilitated, curated and prepared the meals and interviews for this article. In addition to Louisa St. Pierre; MA+ Group, Raushan Ussenova; Diplomatic Spouse Club London, Venitia van Kuffler; Editor DIPLOMAT Magazine, Angela Bourderyemunoz; Canning House, Straun Stevenson; former Member of the European Parliament, author and columnist, Charlie Surbey; photographer, Joe Almond; videographer, Kitty Slydell-Cooper; St. John Restaurant London.