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food / travel

Presidential Kitchen Secrets - What State Menus Tell Us About World Leaders

Gu Yi


BEIJING - “Eat, drink, man and woman – the greatest human desires reside in them...” It is an ancient Confucian proverb, meaning that food and love are basic to human nature.

Were the public invited to vote on what they’d like most to know about their nations’ leaders I’m convinced it wouldn’t be their policy agenda nor their achievements but, apart from the usual gossip, it would be what they eat and drink.

Numerous former presidential chefs, from Nelson Mandela’s cook – Joel Normand – who served five French presidents; to Kenji Fujimoto – the Japanese cook who served former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il; have all published books on the subject. In their memoires, they detail the menus concocted for visiting dignitaries and unveil their culinary secrets.

The public knows very little about the “familiar strangers” that govern our countries. Apart from the photos, press releases and television appearances, there is not much human interaction between high-level politicians and ordinary people. Perhaps that’s why we want to know more about what they eat and drink.

“Governing a big country is like cooking a small dish,” said Lao Zi, the founder of Taoist philosophy. Our ancestors understood a long time ago the relationship between food and politics. Smart politicians know that the best way to propagate their beliefs and political views is through little details – and food is definitely a great medium. Countless political confrontations begin and end at the table. What’s more exciting than the mix of intrigues and sensual desire?

The menus of heads of state and celebrities have become the focus of media reports, and the subject of gossip. You only need to look at a U.S. presidential dinner to get a taste of American politics.

Let’s take President Obama as an example. Since he came into office, the White House’s executive chef has been a Filipino lady. I personally don’t believe this is necessarily because she has particularly outstanding cooking skills but because her identity reflects Obama’s origins and aspirations.

Since 2005, the White House has been Americanizing its state banquets. It has replaced the French chefs and the French menus. In their place, American ingredients and dishes are have deliberately taken center stage. Tender buffalo meat produced in the U.S. and roast corn are often on the menu. Michelle Obama is also actively involved in the processing, tending a vegetable garden and donning an apron for the cameras. This style probably captured the hearts of quite a few voters who were disappointed with big politics.

A foreseeable trend is that ingredients with dubious environmental or ethical origins are increasingly being removed from the menus of state banquets, replaced by local delicacies. This was particularly evident for Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou’s inauguration banquet. There were no outrageously expensive shark fins, neither were there Isinglass finings (a form of gelatin made from fish bladders), but instead mackerel and prawns from the Taiwanese Pescadores Islands; pheasant from Tainan and broad rice noodles from Kaohsiung, both in southern Taiwan; gentiana and lily tubers from Hualien, in eastern Taiwan – all local ingredients that ordinary people can easily obtain.

BBQ diplomacy

The menu is often quite irrelevant to politicians’ personal tastes. George W. Bush, known for his “barbecue diplomacy,” could always rely on alfresco dining to rope in allies. He entertained Putin with lobster, but he treated Nicolas Sarkozy to hamburgers, hot dogs and corn on the cob.

A few months ago, in a protest against a foie-gras backlash and ban in the U.S., French President François Hollande not only increased the proportion of foie-gras dishes in the French presidential palace, but also paid a special visit to a farm in southwestern Gers to show his support of the farmers’ contribution to the French gastronomy.

A few years ago a book called the “Duchy Originals Cookbook,” written by Johnny Acton and Nick Sandler gave insight into the dietary preferences of the British Royal family. The book, fore-worded by the Prince of Wales himself, promotes the Royal family in an indirect manner. “The Queen likes Martini very much, but she is not a big drinker. The way to make this mixed beverage is to stir it gently, not to shake it,” says the book.

One shouldn’t expect to find much gossip about the political elite and royal families in these cook books and chefs’ memoires. These chefs and cooks have rarely gone through hostile break with their influential bosses. The most gossipy they get is when they write that Hillary Clinton eats lightly and Queen Elisabeth is extremely good-natured and not picky at all. Every cook loves her.

But the public, on the other hand, wants to learn facts that will reinforce or confirm their judgment of someone. For instance, in 2006, BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman, stayed at the Queens’ private estate to conduct research for his book. The book, it turns out, revealed Prince Charles’ pickiness. Every morning, he would ask his chef to prepare seven undercooked eggs so that at least one would turn out perfect. Among the Royal family members, the Prince of Wales is the least frugal. His English breakfast includes roast chicken and lobster salad. Lunch is composed of eight dishes, and then there is high tea, which is followed by an eight-course dinner. A soup is prepared from two whole salmons and halibuts. Lamb and beef tenderloin are a must. Not to mention a few game birds and herring dipped in a huge amount of mustard, as well as a good selection of cheeses.

That’s not the end of it. Before going to bed, the Prince of Wales likes a light supper made up of cakes and appetizers. As the book revealed, because he likes eggs so much His Royal Highness is said to have a major constipation problem.

No matter how much the public looks forward to its leaders being brought down to earth, it’s unrealistic to expect these people to live – and eat – in simplicity. A French president whose salary is one-third lower than his Prime Minister, nevertheless enjoys over-the-top benefits. He has a palace with 365 rooms and a massive garden. In the kitchen, there are as many as 77 employees on hand during the day. More than 300 dishes are prepared daily. And needless to say the president also has access to a cellar with more than 15,000 bottles of wine.

These days, the difference between what the ordinary people eat and what the dignitaries eat is less and less obvious. Often the world leaders’ personal chefs go on to become Michelin cooks. Even in China, the so-called “royal cuisine” is becoming mainstream. It’s no longer inaccessible to try out the delicacies that used to be reserved to the privileged.

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