Hillary Rodham Clinton Takes Charge in the Kitchen for Diplomatic Dinners

The State Department has a tasty new menu for visiting foreign officials

If you think you’ve sat through your fair share of uncomfortable family dinner conversations, think again — we’re pretty sure the State Department plays host to much tenser tables than any you’ve known. But if you thought you’d never want to dine with the diplomats, one look at their recent menus might make you think again.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has taken it upon herself to ease the tension inherent in diplomatic dinners by recruiting top-notch chefs to create a personalized and decidedly stylish roster of recipes for visiting foreign dignitaries and heads of state. That means well-known chefs like Bryan Voltaggio of Maryland’s Volt and Ming Tsai of Wellesley, Mass.’s Blue Ginger have been invited to cook at the department's Washington, D.C. headquarters for visiting officials that share their cultural background.

For Chinese vice president Xi Jinping, Tsai served soy-marinated black cod and eight treasured rice packet with dried fruit and pork sausage, while Voltaggio served a cultural fusion of peekytoe crab with jasmine rice, yuzu, avocado, and soy air, followed by Wagyu beef for Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda. These cross-cultural meals are thoughtfully planned in order to diplomatically "share our culture with our guests," said Capricia Marshall to The New York Times. "At the same time, we don’t want to serve them their food, because they can do it better. But we want to give a nod to their culture in a fusion dish." Marshall is the chief of protocol who makes the calls on dinner when Clinton is away from headquarters.

From the recent Fourth of July contest for the "best apple dessert from an embassy kitchen" to providing a table of officials’ favorite snacks at the start of each meal, Clinton is intent on providing visitors with meals that pay homage to their culinary tradition while also showcasing American cuisine.

Clinton first took an interest in the White House culinary scene when she replaced the traditional French food and chefs with contemporary American cuisine prepared by an American chef as the first lady during her husband’s presidency.

Before Clinton revamped dinnertime, the State Department relied solely on local caterers, who supplied limited and often dull menus. In 2009, a special unit was created to handle all the secretary’s official activities when she is hosting foreign dignitaries.

Jason Larkin has been the executive chef and event manager for the department since 2006. With his assistant Chris James, he selects local and seasonal ingredients for his recipes, making for much more diverse and interesting meals.

Clinton plans to step down next year, but the office of protocol plans to continue the food initiatives far into the future, including a currently in-the-works program intended to spread the practice of diplomatic cooking to America’s embassies by linking domestic chefs with chefs overseas.