A New Structure for Culinary Diplomacy

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It’s been a while since I’ve written in these pages, but it’s not for lack of thought about Culinary Diplomacy. I’ve been considering the field in a variety of ways for the past few years, and have come up with an updated conception of the field. Here I will present a new structure, which I’ve mentioned in passing to a few scholars of the field with mostly positive feedback. I’m hoping to codify this new structure in a more formal way, including adding more depth and color of case studies, but before I do so, I’m interested to hear how it comes across to my colleagues around the world – I want to understand if it is compelling enough to pursue. So, without further ado, I present to you:


The Three Pillars of Culinary Diplomacy


In earlier writing, I have defined culinary diplomacy as “the use of food and cuisine as instruments to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.” I will not be updating that definition here, but redefining the structure of the field as I’ve seen it grow. In a blog post from April 2014, I laid out a taxonomy of the field. The terms “culinary diplomacy,” “gastrodiplomacy,” “food diplomacy,” “gastronomic diplomacy, “diplomatic gastronomy,” and more were in use at the time, with the first two being the most common. My colleague Paul Rockower, then and now, distinguished culinary diplomacy as being confined to formal interactions between heads of state and in official diplomatic functions, while gastrodiplomacy is a tool of outreach for governments to foreign publics. He added that gastrodiplomacy would also include people-to-people connections through the act of breaking bread.


In my article “Culinary Diplomacy: Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds,” as well as elsewhere in my writing, I have insisted that the two terms (culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy) describe one and the same overall idea, with different terminologies. I did take a cue from Paul and distinguish two tracks, those of private and public culinary diplomacy. Private culinary diplomacy mapped (for the most part) on Paul’s conception of “culinary diplomacy” (formal interactions between heads of state, etc.) and public culinary diplomacy mapped on gastrodiplomacy. I’ll admit this conception was due to my linguistic dislike of the word ‘gastrodiplomacy,’ but I did find my distinction of ‘public’ and ‘private’ to be more clear, and therefore more compelling, than the somewhat random distinction between ‘culinary diplomacy’ and ‘gastrodiplomacy.’


My new conception of the field, though, is more structured, and I hope more clear. Culinary Diplomacy, I have come to believe, is an overarching term, an umbrella that is raised over three somewhat distinct (though not perfectly so) pillars.


The first pillar, which for now I’ve been thinking of as “Track I Culinary Diplomacy,” maps closely to my original “private culinary diplomacy” and Paul’s “culinary diplomacy.” It involves formal interactions between government officials, either behind closed doors or in public. Ambassadorial entertaining, working lunches, state dinners; all of these fall into the field of Track I Culinary Diplomacy. This pillar is rich with history, rich in narrative, and the most widely considered by the public – every time an American State Dinner occurs, the menu, the seating charts, and more are pored over by the media. There are books concerning Track I Culinary Diplomacy, including Cita Stelzer’s Dinner With Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table, and I’m aware of at least one academic, Elaine Mahon, whose work could be classified under this pillar.


The second pillar of culinary diplomacy, which I’ll now concede and refer to as gastrodiplomacy, specifically involves government-to-foreign public engagement. In the world of diplomacy theory, it may be considered a sub-component of public diplomacy. Its goals are to build a nation’s soft power, to promote trade and tourism, and to encourage cultural exchange. This second pillar has become established in the last fifteen years, at first with the work of the Thai government and since including projects led by the Peruvians, South Korea, Malaysia, the U.S. Department of State, and more. Included in this field would be governmental efforts to have national cuisines and dishes ascribed to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural world heritage, as well as international culinary events like the 2015 Milan Expo. Paul’s writing, as well as that of Mary Jo Pham, Yelena Osipova, and others, would reside under this pillar, as would future analyses or case studies of the various nation-branding projects currently underway.


The third pillar, which I’ve never seen formally extracted from the rest of the field, I’ve started to think of as “Citizen Culinary Diplomacy.” It involves any project or idea that for the most part engages non-state actors – somewhat akin to the subfield of citizen diplomacy, but without the explicit goal of promoting a nation’s foreign relations. This is a huge and growing area, with projects spread around the world involving cross-cultural weight loss programs, trans-border cooking collaborations, educational dinner pop-ups, and more. This pillar is gaining traction in popular media due to the rise of “conflict café” type projects focusing on immigration and cuisine, and I expect it should only grow. I have not seen significant treatment of this field in academic literature, though I am aware of a few students in the UK working on these issues.


The names of the pillars are flexible; I’m not wedded to any of them, but I see value in the descriptiveness and sense borrowed from the realm of diplomacy for the names of Pillars I and III and the precedent in the field of Pillar II.


As I mentioned above, there are likely numerous cases which lodge themselves firmly between these pillars, or maybe outside; I welcome these examples and hope we can find ways to classify them, whether between two pillars or simply as part of the overarching field. One student of the field suggested a potential muddling of pillars if government actors are invited to participate in NGO exchanges; I can imagine other situations as well, such as when a private citizen engages with a foreign public for the benefit of his or her national cuisine and culture (the Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio has done this, for example). Otherwise, I hope that a majority of cases can be fit under one of the three pillars. If not, I look forward to shifting this new conception in order to be of use to other scholars in the field.


This is certainly brief, but I hope it gets across the new structure as I’ve been envisioning it. So, have at it: I welcome all thoughts, concerns, and criticisms.



6 Responses

  1. Sam – thank you very much for this interesting post. It is a great summary of your/field’s thinking on the issue.

    I have one major concern (since you asked for it :) ): what is the ‘value’ of this conceptual differentiation? I am posing this question from primarily an academic point of view. I argue that a concept is valuable only if it helps us better analyze/understand a social phenomenon. I am quite skeptical about ‘gastrodiplomacy’ or even public diplomacy when the topic comes to their conceptual utility. At the end of the day, all of these non-traditional diplomacy tools, the so-called hyphenated diplomacy tools, are just international communication, aren’t they? When I differentiate between Track I and Track II gastrodiplomacy, and then introduce a further differentiation within Track II, what do I gain in terms of conceptual utility?


    • Efe, thanks for the pushback. This is precisely why I posted, so I appreciate your words.

      I understand your concern — why break this concept down further if it doesn’t have added value? I agree that this new distinction may be semantic, but I think that adding extra structure and terms helps explicate these ideas better, and that has value. The tool of culinary diplomacy, as I see it, is itself tri-partite: from state-to-state, state-to-public, and public-to-public (or private citizen-to-private citizen). We can see examples of each level, and the latter two are becoming more popular every year. When I think about, write about, or explain these ideas to others, it’s useful to me to have a reference point from which to start. So to me, these definitions are valuable in helping better understand a social phenomenon, whether it is a series of dinners showcasing cuisines from refugee chefs, an exhibit at the Venice Biennale with a Thai chef “performing” in a kitchen, or the choice of menu at a State Dinner. Should we compare and understand each in reference to each other? Yes to an extent, but within each category, there are more useful or apt comparisons — it is an interdisciplinary field, so analysis within a single framework doesn’t always make sense. If we have an understanding of the theory and purpose of each category (contact theory, international communication, or soft power for example), we can better explain the social phenomena that arise out of them.

      I know you have studied public diplomacy extensively during your time at American; I would love to read some of your work to help me broaden my own understanding of the field.


  2. Great piece, Sam! I am excited to follow the next step of your journey.

    In regards to muddling the last pillar, perhaps ‘is facilitated by’ instead of ‘engages’ in the definition. With each pillar, the important part, and correct me if I am wrong, is who is conducting the culinary exchange and for what purpose. I imagine non-state actors would occasionally request the support and participation of a government as a stakeholder to further legtimatize their goal and provide resources.

    • Hi Kelsey, thanks for the words of support!

      I think you’re on to something with that change — “is facilitated by” does indeed get closer than “engages” to describing the realities of the citizen culinary diplomacy pillar. It helps answer a question posed to me by a researcher in the U.K. a couple of months ago, Jack Fleming, who will hopefully be publishing his work soon. I think a broader term may even be more helpful. The question also involves impact — so a broad definition would sum up the following: who is facilitating, who is being engaged, and at what level is the intended impact? Will keep working on the definition to figure out a good phrasing for that. Thanks for bringing it up.


  3. Ana-Maria Bell

    Hi Sam! By way of introduction, my name is Ana-Maria and I am a candidate for an MLA in Gastronomy at BU. Culinary diplomacy has been a focus of mine for some time, so I have followed your work with great interest. I have been meaning to drop you a line for a while, but as I have been working on a project of my own that is also an attempt to delineate the field, I feel this is a good time to finally do so!

    Since culinary initiatives are so influenced by the purposes for which they are begun, it has made sense to me to categorize them by these contexts to allow for more directed analysis. Towards this end, I have come up with three sub-fields of culinary diplomacy: culinary cultural diplomacy, culinary nation branding, and culinary community diplomacy.

    Culinary cultural diplomacy, informed by the broader practice of cultural and public diplomacy, seeks to promote a culture to outsiders in order to effect smooth political relations and/or build soft power. Closely related to cultural diplomacy is the more commercial activity of culinary nation branding, which is informed by the marketing principles set out by Simon Anholt, and which seeks to promote a nation or a place in an effort to draw in tourists and accumulate cultural wealth and prominence. To my mind, cultural diplomacy and nation branding are similar in that they operate on delineations of difference. The ultimate aim of each is to create a context where commerce and diplomacy thrive, because it celebrates, supports, and insists on difference.

    Culinary community diplomacy is more akin to what I believe you have written about as “Track III” culinary diplomacy in the past. Informed by intergroup contact theory, it seeks to enhance relationships and reduce conflicts within and between communities by creating opportunities for productive communication. This sub-field does not necessarily serve a particular cultural entity, but rather seeks to create a context that celebrates connections instead of differences.

    Each of these sub-fields is open both to state and non-state actors; can be used in the service of a state (or another designated cultural group) or in the service of a community or individuals; can be unilateral or multi-lateral, and uni-directional or multi-directional in terms of engagement. In practice, of course, certain patterns of actors, audiences, and aims will emerge. But it has made sense to me to focus on the question that Kelsey raised, “to what purpose?”, which seems to cut through some of the confusion that arises from having so many agents, initiatives, and outcomes crowding the world stage.

    What I am mainly trying to grapple with is this ever-so-subtle element of promoting cultural differences vs. cultural connections. Ostensibly, all cultural diplomacy initiatives exist to connect peoples, yet so many depend on narratives of distinction in one way or another. Anyway, this has been rattling around my head for a while and I’d love to know your thoughts about it!

    • Hi Ana-Maria, thanks for the comment! This is a great way to think about the field, and definitely adds a lot to the conversation. I think it’s important to think about the “to what purpose?” question when looking at any culinary diplomacy campaign/programs. My concern with the similarity/difference dichotomy to categorize is that it rarely is so black and white — many cultural diplomacy initiatives celebrate both difference and similarity, and some community/citizen ones rely on differences to highlight and celebrate similarity. The goal of giving the field some more structure through categorization is to attempt to clarify and delineate it a bit more, so that outsiders can understand it better and so that researchers have more definitional tools to use. I think we can continue to tweak these, based on who the actors of a project are and what its purpose is, to make it useful for everyone. Thanks again for the input and let’s keep in touch about this!


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