Dining And Diplomacy – Cambodia On a Plate

How do states navigate tricky knots in negotiations, affirm their strongest relations and make their boldest, but unspoken, declarations? Through food of course…

To many, food is simply something they put into their mouths in order to fuel the things they’re doing while they’re not eating. To others, the power of food to bring people together and bind, or break, relations is its very essence, which is why food has for so long played such an important role in international relations. Former British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, noted that “dining is the soul of diplomacy”, and this is as true today as it was in the 1860s thanks to food’s power to communicate as eloquently as any wordsmith can.

Coming together around a table and, often, rather elaborate meal has the power to deepen alliances and broaden understanding. It unites and unifies, diffuses political tensions and affirms bonds. Studies have shown that it not only enhances peoples’ receptiveness to whatever is being discussed, it also triggers a desire to “repay” the provider. Food brings people together, and the dining table provides a less fraught setting within which to develop cordial and productive relationships, especially after a day of tiring negotiations in a different arena.

But food on this scale also has the power to tell a tale. When the Irish government welcomed Queen Elizabeth on a state visit in 2011, food was an especially fraught subject given the series of famines that defined British colonial rule, culminating in the Great Famine of 1845-49 that killed around one million people. But the Irish government turned that bitter pill around, and used food to make a statement about Ireland’s diplomatic, cultural and culinary identity. It was a statement that was both welcoming and welcomed because it came from a place of genuine pride that was expressed through the selection of local ingredients and local foodways. Even the wines, Château Lynch-Bages and Château de Fieuzal, were chosen for their historical Irish connections. Until she died recently, the Queen still talked about this occasion as one of the greatest of her reign. It was a moment that cemented and transformed relations between the two countries. Ireland was no longer afraid to stand up and be counted, and said as much through every bite and sip of that meal. That is the power of food.

ASEAN Cambodia 2022

On another grand occasion in 1889, the Emperor of Japan, Meiji the Great, hosted a dinner for 800 people to celebrate the completion of a new royal palace, and to showcase Japan’s modernisation and sophistication. In that case, there was no question but that the menu and service had to be French and it took the court two years to prepare for the spectacular occasion. During that time courtiers had to be trained in how to dress and behave at a French dinner, including the peculiar art of making small talk, and also in how to resist being unnerved by the constant clatter of silverware on porcelain.

Fortunately, great occasions are a little less fraught these days, and don’t take quite so long to prepare for. But they still take time. When Thalias was called on to prepare a dinner for 500 people during the ASEAN Summit in August this year, we knew how important it was that the evening show off the best of Cambodia.

The menu itself was conceived by Chef Luu Meng who took delegates on a proud culinary tour of the nation with a distinctly Cambodian menu that included Kampot Crab, Takeo River Langoustine, Battambang Beef Saraman.

But aside from all the menu planning, wine pairing, organising, ordering, scheduling and everything else that goes into putting together a great dinner, it took our kitchen teams three full days of slicing, chopping, dicing, mixing, marinading and 193 other things just to prepare the meal. It’s a huge task that takes a huge team and an awful lot of careful coordination.

Fortunately, this is where Topaz Executive Chef Sopheak Pov is in his element. Chef Sopheak refined his kitchen management skills in Michelin-starred kitchens in France where the brigade system rules. That system helps him to keep his eye on 200 different details and moving parts all at once, even when working in a domain that is not strictly his own. Chef Sopheak is less experienced in Cambodian cuisine than he is in French. It’s a great example of how systems can define outcomes, regardless of the arena.

Speaking a few years ago while Ambassador of Denmark, Joe Biden’s current Chief of Protocol, Rufus Gifford once said, “When you tell a story with food—whatever that story may be—it makes diplomacy a little bit easier. I have found that especially, at this moment in time, whether it’s coming out of covid, or the weight of the geopolitical situation around the world, we need more joy in our lives. We need more reasons to gather around a table and laugh and smile, and connect as human beings. That starts and ends with food.”

We’re very much inclined to agree.

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