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In the Age of Political and Cultural Mistrust, Food is Our Common Denominator

In the Age of Political and Cultural Mistrust, Food is Our Common Denominator

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The trip took two years to coordinate.

Lauren Bernstein was the Director of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership Program for almost five years. She spearheaded projects that involved welcoming leaders of foreign countries to the United States through organizing events that showcased American cuisine, vendors and artisans while also incorporating touches from the visitors’ home countries. In turn, she would also arrange for chefs to visit US Embassies overseas to promote culinary tourism.

“It was a way of teaching our culture through food,” Bernstein says of her time with the program. “Even if you don’t speak the language, you can always communicate through food.”

Lauren Bernstein
Lauren Bernstein

Working for the State Department, the mission was always focused on instruction and demonstration overseas. There was not a component where American chefs returned home to impart what they learned on their travels.

“The whole point is cultural exchange, not half an exchange,” Bernstein emphasizes. She envisioned a program that would send chefs not just to embassies but to people’s homes for an immersive experience that could later be shared.

Her passion for the idea grew to such an extent that she left her position at the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership to form a non-profit organization called The Culinary Diplomacy Project. The idea is to have people from different communities interact with each other first hand, especially in this highly digitized age. Bernstein thought of food as the doorway to other cultures. Her heartwarming concept turned out to be an expensive and logistically challenging endeavor.

The chefs on their culinary diplomacy trip to Jordan
(L-R) Duff Goldman, Marc Murphy, Mary Sue Milliken, Art Smith, Amanda Freitag

Over the course of two years, Bernstein began recruiting high profile chefs interested in culinary diplomacy. While building these connections, she also traveled far and wide to find the perfect place to begin the project, all on a shoestring budget. Jordan became the chosen destination.

In October of 2019, The Culinary Diplomacy Project hosted its inaugural trip. Bernstein, along with a small group of advisors, traveled with Food Network chefs Amanda Freitag, Duff Goldman, Mary Sue Milliken, Marc Murphy, and Art Smith to visit Amman, Aqaba, Petra, Wadi, Rum, and Irbid. A local celebrity chef named Inas Ahed joined the group as translator and guide.

Coordinating such a large group is no small feat but Bernstein went one step further by ensuring the chefs could actually visit local homes and cook with families. The highlight—and perhaps the most emotionally charged point—of the trip was a visit to the Zaatari Refugee Camp. There, the chefs were paired up with some of the refugees to visit camp markets, shop for groceries, and cook at home together.

“We were invited in so warmly by them,” Bernstein describes. “They had breakfasts laid out for us. These people don’t have a lot and yet they put out everything they had to welcome us.”

Bernstein gets emotional describing the experience.

“People forget that these were folks who had lives and professions just like us and they had to leave with only what they could carry. If you stop and think about what you’d have to leave behind—your family story, your mementos, everything important to your identity. Food is a way to hold on to your culture.”

Restaurateur Micheline Mendelsohn, who had accompanied the group as an advisor, says, “It made you realize that moms are moms everywhere. We all worry about our children and care about our futures. That’s what Lauren’s program is trying to show the world.”

“We’re always so focused on our differences,” Bernstein continues. “But our differences are fewer than our similarities. Everyone has family traditions. The food is different but the emotions that you feel when you’re cooking dishes handed down by your mother and your grandmother…that’s a human connecting point we can all understand.”

Over the course of a short week, the CDP group toured Petra; camped in Wadi Rum where they learned Bedouin-style cooking; rode camels to see the sunrise; visited spice markets; cooked an ocean side feast; visited and taught at a culinary school; hosted an event for the King Hussein Cancer Foundation; floated in the Dead Sea; and made more memories to last a lifetime.

chefs and diplomacy project representatives at the Zaatari refugee camp
The Culinary Diplomacy Project visits Zaatari Refugee Camp

Food Network judge and chef Marc Murphy says, “Our trip to Jordan with The Culinary Diplomacy Project was truly life changing…What I keep with me the most and remember from our time there is that food really is a universal language. We connected with many different people of diverse religions and languages just through the power of sharing a meal or learning and listening about a dish that was important to that person’s identity and home. That’s what is so incredible about the work The Culinary Diplomacy Project is doing. It’s breaking down borders and bringing people together through food. At the end of the day, everyone has to eat and if we can learn to do that together that’s a good start to diplomacy. And I practice that sentiment everywhere I go now.”

The Culinary Diplomacy Project is already finalizing details for its next trip.

“I passionately feel that we can make a difference,” Bernstein states. “We need it so desperately right now. Everything out there seems so negative. I want a positive thing that people can really focus on.”

If you’d like to be a part of spreading the positivity, make a tax deductible donation to The Culinary Diplomacy Project here.

2 Comments

  1. Lisa
    February 13, 2020 at 5:34 pm
    Reply

    I absolutely love this concept! What a fabulous way to bring people together- through the universal language of food!

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