Joseph Stalin stunned Winston Churchill into silence by offering the British prime minister the cooked head of a pig at their official dinner when the two met for the first time in 1942 in Moscow to shape their World War II campaign. Churchill declined and Stalin gleefully devoured the dish alone.
Food has been an obscure choice for kings and rulers since ages to dominate discussion tables. An African ruler is said to have got treaties signed by supplying his opponent with beverages to the point that it required urgent bathroom breaks. The exasperated head of state would duly sign to rush to the toilet. In recent times, Iranians broke the ice in their nuclear talks with Americans by simply deciding to eat with them after always having gone for separate tables. In the fragile political environs of the subcontinent, mangoes from Pakistan sometimes did what diplomats couldn’t do to keep peace. More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gained an upper spiritual hand with US President Barack Obama by not eating at all at his state dinner in Washington because he was fasting.
While the leaders are subtly engaged in food diplomacy, little thought is given to those cooking their dinners. Earlier this week, a group of chefs working at the presidential palaces of some of the most powerful nations in the world took a break from their kitchens to meet each other. Their destination was New Delhi. The occasion, the first-ever General Assembly of the Paris-headquartered Le Club des Chefs des Chefs (The Club of the Chefs of Chefs) in India. “Food is very important in global politics,” says French businessman Gilles Bragard, who founded the club in 1977 with eight chefs. “There were several blocs for nations, which held summits and we thought we should create a club for chefs of heads of state,” says Bragard. The club, which has 25 members today, welcomed India into its fold in 1990. “Many countries do not have official chefs for their presidents,” adds Bragard, referring to the meagre number of the club’s members.
“Serving your head of state everyday is an honour,” says Mark Flanagan, the club’s vice-president and chef to Queen Elizabeth II of the UK. “It is like winning the World Cup.” Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s home, may have been using cooking pans from the early 19th century, but Flanagan insists his kitchen is a ‘contemporary organisation’. “We follow traditions, but we have to be in tune with the times,” he says. Cristeta Comerford, Obama’s chef, was sous chef when the US President hosted a dinner for Modi at the White House two years ago. “We didn’t have a chef at that time and I was standing in,” says the Philippines-born Comerford. “After that dinner, I became the White House chef.”
“At the end of the day, they are normal people who have an important job to do,” says Comerford about cooking for presidents. Preparing food for a president of a foreign country involves cooking traditional cuisine. So how do they manage? “We get information from the embassy of the visiting dignitary about allergies or food preferences,” says President Pranab Mukherjee’s chef Montu Saini. “But now, thanks to our club, we can call the chef of the visiting head of state directly,” adds Saini, who joined the job a year ago. “It is the best job in the world,” beams French President Francois Hollande’s chef Bernard Vaussion. “The President likes world cuisine,” says Vaussion, who has served six presidents in a career spanning four decades at Élysée Palace. For Luxembourg chef Franck Panier, who has been serving the Duke, the constitutional monarch, for the past eight years, the job is ‘tough’. “It’s the same person eating everyday and you have to have hundreds of recipes,” says Panier, who often gets requests from the Duke’s wife, who is of Cuban origin, for curry.
As per chefs, if the food they make is not good, they are always told so. Culinary malfunctioning is common in the arena of food diplomacy. Once Turkey’s relation with a European country was on the brink of a nasty ending when its president was gifted a cake laced with alcohol, a perfect recipe for diplomatic disaster. It was too late to pull the plug on the gift and the cake was given. Nothing happened in the end though and those in the know kept mum about the alcohol. When I ask Flanagan, the Queen’s chef, what happens if a dictator is visiting, he snaps, “It is none of my business (he meant mine). I am there only to cook.”
Proud of their preparations, the chefs, however, concede one point: the best food in the world is made by mom.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer