Mr President, sink your teeth into this - Culinary diplomacy by India’s First Chef

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By K.P. NAYAR
  • Published 30.07.13
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Some of the members of CCC or Club des Chefs des Chefs, “the world’s most exclusive gastronomic society”

Washington, July 29: Something’s cooking in the White House and the President of India has a hand in it.

A singularly special “envoy” from Rashtrapati Bhavan will call on US President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday. Later today the unusual envoy, Machindra Kasture, is scheduled to be received in his Turtle Bay office by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Pranab Mukherjee, who has just completed a year in office, cannot, in the normal course, send special envoys abroad. Even if he did, under very special circumstances, it would require a slew of clearances from the Union cabinet and elsewhere since the President is the constitutional head of a state where the Prime Minister is the chief executive.

But Kasture, who arrived in the US two days ago on a week-long visit, is not bound by such constitutional or protocol constraints. Because, as the executive chef to the President, he will represent Rashtrapati Bhavan, and not the Government of India, when he goes to the White House or to the UN headquarters.

Along with Kasture when he meets Obama will be 17 other chefs to heads of state or government from around the world and their host here, Cristeta Comerford, the executive chef of the White House.

Because these chefs who cook for some of the world’s most powerful men and women and their steady stream of VIP guests have taken time off their important assignments, Comerford has promised to “help her international counterparts discover American culture through its best products and representative” culinary personalities, according to a media release from the National Press Club here.

Kasture and those with him on their US tour will speak at the club about their experiences on Thursday afternoon following their call on Obama. Later, they will have a powwow with the US state department’s chef corps to “discuss the confluence of culinary diplomacy, a mixture of cuisine and diplomacy”, an announcement here said.

The 18-member group includes chefs to the Prime Minister of Canada and the Presidents of France, Austria, Italy and Poland. Representing royal households are chefs to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, Prince Albert II of Monaco, the Kings of Thailand and Sweden and the Queen of Denmark.

Typically, those from the “People’s Republic” of China who are in the group are not chefs to any individuals, howsoever important they may be in the communist hierarchy. They are designated chefs to the “Great Hall of the People”.

These chefs to the high and mighty make up a standing organisation under the umbrella of the Club des Chefs des Chefs or CCC, which claims to be “the world’s most exclusive gastronomic society”.

It came into being in 1977 at the famed Paul Bocuse restaurant in the French Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, often described as the “temple of gastronomy”, during a get-together of several personal chefs of heads of state. The meeting was the brainchild of Gilles Bragard, who calls himself the couturier to chefs and international hospitality. Bragard is accompanying the group on its current American tour.

The first head of state to receive a CCC group was Ronald Reagan and later Bill Clinton. Subsequently, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, among others, have played host to the club’s members.

Last year, CCC members were received by Germany’s Angela Merkel at her Chancellery in Berlin and by French President François Hollande at the Elysée Palace. Merkel praised the work of chefs as “essential contribution to the friendly relationship between heads of states” while Hollande reminded the chefs of their unique role in international relationships because official meals equally favoured “successful or unsuccessful negotiations” and did not take into account the outcome of summit meetings.

The privileged chefs of the world also learned during their 2012 get-together that Hollande dislikes artichokes and became privy to a secret that Merkel sneaks into France unannounced because of her passion for choice French food.

When they went to Moscow in 2011, these chefs discovered two secrets: the Russians still have a food taster, a practice from the Stalin era, who samples their leader’s food before it is served to him to ensure that it is not poisoned. The second secret is that the chef at the Kremlin is French, not Russian.

Medvedev may not have been considering the ethnicity of his chef when he told CCC members of the “important role that they play in major diplomatic meetings… by creating, through the excellent dishes that they prepare, the best possible atmosphere for reaching the right agreements”.

Kasture was invited to Berlin and Paris but could not go because it was transition time in Rashtrapati Bhavan: Pratibha Patil was ending her tenancy and Mukherjee was moving in. Kasture, who has had his job at the President’s abode for seven years, is in charge of the entire household on the sprawling estate at the top of Raisina Hill.

Being a politically correct lot, the chefs began their US tour in New York during the weekend by cooking for 200 needy people in Manhattan at the soup kitchen of the Xavier Mission, a local Christian charity.

The rich meal which CCC members cooked and served free to these poor people will also be on the menus of InterContinental Hotels throughout this week: chopped summer salad with pecans and tarragon dressing as appetiser, maple and Canadian whole grain mustard glazed cedar planked salmon for main course followed by Anglesey eggs. New York’s poor rarely had it so good.