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Peter Murphy, Senior Business Counsel for BPL International Business Advisors, was invited by the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Pollenzo, Italy) to meet the students from around the world and address them on the subject of “Culinary Diplomacy”. Here is the transcript of his speech.
When you think of “diplomacy” – what comes to your mind?

Typically, we think of diplomacy as our government’s representatives abroad, at embassies or in international conferences, working to promote our national interests. We might also think of foreign dignitaries meeting with heads of State and important leaders in our own countries for the same purpose.

Sure, these are indeed forms of “diplomacy” in the traditional sense. But there is another type of “diplomacy” which has been gaining in popularity in recent years that revolves entirely around food and drink.

I am speaking, of course, about culinary diplomacy. Food – and cuisine in general – as well as wines fall within the framework of “cultural diplomacy” that is food and drink acting as a medium for diplomatic exchange.

Culinary diplomacy has been used throughout history as a means to further a nation’s diplomatic goals through cuisine. Those goals, of course, include advocating for democracy, free trade, human rights, economic development and so forth. However, in the past 20 years, cuisine has taken on even more importance on the world stage. Culinary diplomacy - or food as a crucial form of soft power - is now a rapidly growing form of cultural and inter-governmental exchange globally which will become extremely significant in our ever-globalizing world.

Now, allow me to tell you something about myself and my life experience in my 32 years of diplomatic service for my country, the United States of America. In outlining my career, I think it will be evident how – at some crucial times in my career – good food certainly helped influence diplomatic goals!

I was born in the Boston area and educated at Boston College. Following my university years, and military service, I decided that I wanted to try to enter the Foreign Service but had no idea how to go about it. I was curious about lands across the seas, different cultures as well as foreign languages.

So, I went to Washington to speak with my Senator to find out exactly how one enters government service. Being from Massachusetts, I went to see my senator at that time, Senator John F. Kennedy. He assisted in getting me information on the process and, after taking the written and then oral examination and passing the security and medical exams six months later I was admitted as an employee of the Department of State.

First assignment: Embassy Paris, France. However, there were no funds available in the budget of the State Department (nothing unusual, even today!) so six of us young officers were sent to NYC to help staff the US Passport Agency and also the US Mission to the United Nations.

When I eventually arrived in Paris six months later I began my duties as a junior officer in a very large Embassy: consular work, deaths and estates office, protection of American citizens. As you can imagine, in those early days, there was not much “diplomatic entertaining” for me – I was a bachelor and “low man on the totem pole”. Thus I got to know the real inexpensive restaurants and cafes of the city. My tour of duty in Paris was two years.

Next assignment: our Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. However, I never arrived at that post. Following Spanish-language training in Washington I returned to Paris to marry my wife of 53 years. While on our honeymoon in Portugal, Washington sent a cable changing our assignment “for the needs of the Service”, as the government euphemistically put it, to Cordoba, Argentina. There, thousands of miles from Washington, and indeed far from Buenos Aires, began our first contact with “gastro diplomacy”.

The major Argentine military schools were based in Cordoba and the military uprising against Peron began in that city. For this reason, it was part of my job to develop close contacts with the Argentine military. Thus, our social life centered around many rather formal dinners: late (!) and long dinners, and then weekends spent at country ranches of military officers.

A word about dining in Argentina: we all know that the Spanish eat rather late in the evening compared to the rest of Europe. Well, the Argentine’s beat them: if you are invited to a dinner at 10:30 PM, you had better not arrive on time as the hostess would perhaps still be taking a shower. In Cordoba we usually started a meal about midnight and it finished around 3:00 AM. My wife, who was then pregnant with our first child, kept falling asleep at dinner parties with at least four untouched glasses of wine in front of her. After a few months, it didn’t bother me that much, but I’ll admit that it was always difficult to get up the next day to open the Consulate at 8:30 in the morning!

Naturally, as you can imagine in that country, we sampled the fantastic beef plus many other specialties: enchiladas, empanadas, etc. The wines from Mendoza (Malbec) were not bad, either. These “social” events were also “working events” for me as a young diplomat and served well in my getting to know key players in the civilian and military life of the area.

My next posting was Milan, Consulate General: consular work, local officials Venice, Bergamo, Verona, etc., large American working population plus the many tourists in this area of Italy. Building contacts with local officials was, of course, necessary. So, we did lots of entertaining at home and were entertained in kind.

From Milan I went back to Paris where I was assigned to head the large visa section of the Embassy. This position was a mixture of consular and political work at the same time (Vietnam Peace Talks in Paris in progress and many members of the Vietnamese government had taken refuge in France.)

Once again, I was obliged to get to know my local contacts over official receptions, meals at home and in restaurants. I had frequent political contacts with the Russians (Cold War period) and the Chinese (ping-pong and medical exchange diplomacy). All these contacts and meetings were very closely coordinated with Washington, even the acceptance of invitations, the gift exchanges, etc.

Several receptions: usefulness of the wives at such events in speaking with foreign colleagues and getting to know them.
Many receptions and dinners were built around National Day celebrations, usually featuring native food.

Nice – Monte Carlo Consul General

I then spent three very intense years spent on the Riviera. There was a flood of entertaining: mainly due to many influential American visitors, especially during the summer months: Lady Bird Johnson, Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, senators and congressmen, entertained by local French hosts as well as Americans. The year 1976 US Bicentennial celebrations plus VIth Fleet visits to ports along the Riviera – 125 in one year!! The usual drill when the Admiral arrives is to call on the prefect and/or the mayor and then a return visit. City of Nice, Cannes and especially in Monte Carlo, given the fact that Princess Grace Kelly was an American citizen.

My wife and I attended endless dinners, receptions and cocktails, and the good will generated at these events, the information obtained and the life-long friendships made were indeed in the long tradition of diplomatic exchange. Several of the important contacts made during those years (not only with the French but with influential leaders from the Middle East, Africa as well as the rest of Europe) helped in providing information on political, commercial and economic matters which was of great interest to Washington.

Department of State, this was the first, and only, posting to Washington in my career. I worked closely for two years with the Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs. My responsibilities consisted mainly in traveling on diplomatic missions throughout the world - China, Cuba, the Philippines, Switzerland, Mexico, Romania and several other countries. As I was usually travelling together with the Assistant Secretary, we were entertained at luncheons and dinners by the highest-ranking government officials at each stop of our journey.

Each trip had a specific diplomatic (political) purpose and quite often the mission’s success was sealed over a lunch or dinner, where we were able to informally talk with the foreign leaders. I’ll give you a concrete example, the Philippines, I was sent there to attempt to persuade the Philippine government to provide to the international community an island off the coast of the country which could be used as a staging area for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, the so called ‘boat people”. After more than a week of negotiating with the then President Marcos (as well as his wife, Imelda, who was very influential in her own right!) we finally succeeded. However, I am convinced that our success was due to the bonds we had established over the many meals and private meetings we had with the Philippine leaders. As an aside, let me tell you that the meals I had in Manila were fantastic, the most representative of the country’s culinary tradition.

After a year at the NATO Defense College in Rome where I was assigned for “senior diplomatic training”, I was posted as Consul General in Genoa – at that time, America’s oldest diplomatic post.

The “consular district” of the Genoa Consulate General encompassed Piedmont, Val d’Aosta as well as all of Liguria. My responsibilities were both political and especially commercial reporting – given the presence in the area of FIAT, Olivetti, Benetton, all important commercial players in the Italian-USA exchange. Again, during this five year period in Genoa, food and wine played a major part in demonstrating respect for the Italian culture and desire to connect and engage. Strong bonds are often developed over a shared meal. As James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground.” I came to know the Italian political elite (Fanfani, Spadolini, Scalfaro, Andriotti) quite well.

Rome – Vatican

At the end of my five year assignment to Genoa, I was really pleased to be nominated as Ambassador to Jamaica but, two weeks prior to leaving Genoa, I was informed that President Reagan had decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican (i.e. the Holy See) and I was asked if I would consider going to Rome to establish the newest US diplomatic mission in Western Europe. That was in 1984. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was the opportunity of a lifetime! However, the work involved was overwhelming.

Where to begin?? I had no predecessors to guide me, no chancery, no residence and, in fact, a miniscule staff when I arrived in Rome in August of that year.

At this point, I would like to give you a bit of a history lesson. US Consular relations with the Papal States dated from George Washington’s days, in 1797. The last diplomatic Minister assigned to Rome was a fellow named Rufus King, whose mission came to an end when the Congress refused to fund his office thus breaking relations with the Papal States. The reason: the Vatican actively backed the Confederacy in our Civil War. Thus, we had no relations with the Holy See until 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt named a Personal Representative, Myron Taylor. This was during the years of World War II and the President considered it imperative that our government have access to information possessed by the “neutral Vatican”. This situation continued, with other Personal Representatives being named by the White House, until 1984 when the Embassy was established and we joined 110 other nations accredited to the Vatican.

The political work carried out in Rome during my assignment was of great value to Washington. Just consider for a moment that these were the years of the beginning of the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the start of the fall of the communist states, keeping in mind that there was a Polish Pope in the Vatican. At the same time, there was very complex situation in the Philippines with the Marcos government, in Panama there were problems with Noriega as well as pressing foreign policy problems in Cuba, Haiti, Iran and Angola, all places where the Church had some influence and presence.

Given all this frantic political activity, I had to work quickly to become acquainted with the key players of the Secretariat of States in the Vatican as well as the various influential members of the diplomatic corps. Again, formal, and informal, meals taken together were the key to getting to know these people. It was not easy, especially for my wife, who had the unenviable job of planning such dinners. We usually stuck to typical American, French or Italian cuisine. These events were usually a great success. The result was that I grew to know and appreciate many of the officers of the Vatican staff as well as the members of the diplomatic corps.

Of course, no diplomat these days gets to dine with the Pope. However, the Cardinals and Archbishops were most willing to come to a good meal and were often in our home. Seating arrangements can be challenging, particularly at the Vatican.

I do recall one visit to the home of a Polish Cardinal, Andrzej Deskur, a close friend of John Paul II and President of the Communications Department at the Vatican at the time.

As you can imagine, during the period of the uprising against the Communist regime in Poland, we at the Embassy kept in close touch with the Polish prelates at the Vatican, especially in the view of John Paul II’s close involvement in the affairs of his native land.

At a late afternoon meeting with Cardinal Deskur at his residence within the Vatican, he offered me tea and a cake. I noticed that the cake had been already cut with a few pieces missing. The cardinal looked a bit apologetic and said, “This is left over from lunch with the Pope today. We couldn’t finish it.” He told me it was the Pope’s favorite dessert called Kremowka Popieska consisting of two layers of puffed pastry sandwiched with whipping cream, butter cream and custard. I can’t imagine how many calories were in the piece I ate! So, that’s the closest I ever got to dining with the Pope!

Entertaining at the Vatican. My wife and I were a bit apprehensive upon arriving in Rome and faced with the problem of planning a dinner party for cardinals and bishops. After a few months, it became second nature when we discovered that most were quite normal and, of course, enjoyed good food and drink, as we could usually see from their girth! Naturally we would have other diplomats or Roman friends together with the prelates, but my wife always said that whenever we had four or five clergymen at the table, she would have to calculate an abundance of food. They all seemed to have very good appetites.

There was, of course, a serious purpose to all this diplomatic entertaining. Whenever I would decide to host a luncheon or dinner or reception at home, there was a specific reason driven by national American considerations. Example: the mid ‘80s were the years of the very beginning of the breakup of the old Soviet Union, which, as you know, started in Poland. With a Polish Pope in Rome it was natural that there was much political and diplomatic activity – energy between Western governments – especially the American government and the Vatican. I met frequently with Polish prelates on their periodic visits to Rome, the Archbishops of Warsaw and Krakow. Over long meals, we discussed the dire situation of not only other Polish people but of the mass of humanity oppressed by the Soviet government.

Other political situations in the world were discussed with bishops from Angola, where the US government at that time had no diplomatic representation. I recall long discussions with bishops from Cuba and Angola who were visiting Rome. At that time, we had no diplomatic relations with either country, so their presence was a unique opportunity.

As some here may be aware, the bishops of the world travel to Rome every five years to present detailed reports on their various dioceses. This was a great opportunity for us diplomats to discuss various complex situations in the world with men who were leaders in their countries.

A case in point: in Haiti in the late ‘80s there were continuing strikes and demonstrations in Port Au Prince against President Jean-Claude DUVALIER in power at the time. We were very interested in the situation. The Haitian bishops had come to Rome for their “ad limina” visit and one day I decided to invite them to lunch to learn more about the situation in their country. Much to my surprise, only three of the five bishops I invited turned up at my home. From the others, I received a note stating that they “would never sit down for a meal with an American diplomat”. So, you live and learn… There are many points of views within the universal Church!

You’ll enjoy this tale of an “almost” diplomatic disaster. One evening I hosted a formal dinner for twenty guests with the guest of honor being the Dean of the College of Cardinals, a cardinal from Benin, Bernadine GANTIN. He was a most kind, gentle and intelligent person who helped me greatly while in Rome. The day prior to the dinner, my wife told me that she had finally found a new chef and that he had excellent credentials. He was a recent graduate of the famed hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland, that he was from Benin and that his father was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. While I thought this was a bit odd I was pleased my wife was so happy with her find.

The aperitif was over and we were seated at the dining room table. (Speaking of aperitif, you, of course, realize that most formal dinners begin with an aperitif or “cocktail hour”. I often have thought that there was a subtle purpose to this. Do you happen to recall the very short poem of the American Poet Ogden Nash entitled “Reflections on Breaking the Ice”. The poem goes “Candy is dandy / but liquor is quicker.” I believe it is quite true – and so, that evening, when the guests were relaxed, we moved to table.

The meal progressed, the wine flowed and the conversation was lively among all the guests. However, as the meal progressed, the plates were slower and slower coming out of the kitchen. To make conversation, I commented to Cardinal Gantin that we had a new chef, who was also from Benin and asked if he happened to know the family. He made a point of saying that he knew the Foreign Minister slightly but knew nothing of the son, our new chef!

The wait for food got longer and longer, finally I excused myself and went into the kitchen where I found our new chef spread out on the kitchen floor stone drunk with the Shrilankan waiters standing around, all giggling! The soufflés, which were intended as dessert, were flat as a pancake and burnt to a crisp! “Quick” I said “Get some ice cream out of the fridge and put hot chocolate sauce on top and serve everyone at once.”

That saved the day and I don’t think that the guests were much the wiser but this is a good example of how one must use ingenuity from time to time in the diplomatic service!

Before finishing, I should say a word about the ultimate form of “Culinary Diplomacy”, and that is, a State Dinner at the White House. The Kennedys and the Reagans, more than any other presidential couple, perfected the art of giving State Dinners.

Throughout modern history, a State Dinner has always been viewed the ultimate honor accorded to a nation’s leader and serves to cement alliances between countries. Such dinners are always quite formal, followed by public toasts given by each Chief of State and usually followed by some sort of entertainment. Such dinners are, of course, more than just good food and excellent wines. They are a means of showing respect and honor of the country represented by its visiting Chief of State. It is an important, and perhaps underestimated, foreign policy tool. The ultimate State Dinners, as you all know, are hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace or at Windsor.

What can we take away from all this talk of eating and diplomacy?

You probably never thought of a dining table being a setting for global diplomacy. But food is much more than sustenance. It is one of the most basic of human needs. Mixed with culture and ethnicity, food is a powerful ingredient in human and foreign relations. In effect, it is how individuals, and societies, relate to one another.

An additional diplomatic function which contributes to the cementing of good relations between nations is the National Day reception. These are important occasions, not only for the United States of America on July 4th or the French Republic on July 14, but perhaps even of greater importance to smaller countries like the Ivory Coast or Jamaica. Usually, wine and some native food are served at such receptions and they are an excellent vehicle for building friendships and providing informal access to diplomats in a relaxed environment.

Food diplomacy is growing with the mobility of international travels. Through a country’s kitchen one can get a better sense of how food serves as a tool of “soft power” and communication.

As a personal aside, I would like to mention my youngest son Marc. Marc is 49 and a chef in New York City. He studied in Italy and two years in Paris and finished up with an internship with Alain Ducasse in Monte-Carlo. He has done very well as a chef and is, in fact, a regular judge on a popular US TV program called “CHOPPED”. Most recently, he is negotiating a contract with RAI in Rome to do the same type program in Italy.

In 2012 the Department of State initiated a worldwide initiated program entitled “Culinary Diplomacy Partnership Initiative”. More than 80 chefs from throughout the United States were named to the American Chef Corps. Fortunately, Marc, my son, was one of the first chosen for this program and was sent to Rome (a natural choice as he was educated there) to explain the American feast of Thanksgiving to the Italian public on national television. While in Rome, he produced typical American cuisine at a formal dinner at the Ambassador’s residence and also at the American Consulate General in Naples.

In subsequent months, he was sent by the State Department to Turkey and then to China where he spent over a month traveling under the auspices of the States Department to promote American cuisine. The initiative, in partnership with the James Beard Foundation, was established to promote U. S. cooking and agricultural products abroad. These chefs might meet with embassy staff, cook a meal or speak at events. For example, Marc was sent by Washington to the recent EXPO in Milano where he produced a typical American meal for leading Italian political leaders and industrialists.

This initiative of designating “State Chefs” was applauded by Mrs. H. Clinton who, as Secretary of State, commented “The working meals I attended with foreign leaders built stronger bonds between our countries and offered an important setting to further the vital diplomatic work we conduct every day”.

In the end, if we can use the power of good food to motivate people to find common ground, it is worth bringing people to the table. Food is more than sustenance. It is one of the most basic of human needs. Mixed with culture, food is a powerful ingredient in human and foreign relations. It is how people relate to one another.

I thank you for listening to me today and I hope that I have provided you with some idea of how important good, well-prepared meal is in the field of diplomacy.

Please feel free to ask any questions about anything that I have addressed.

Thank you!

Published: April 8, 2018