Tuesday, March 29, 2016

'Food is a powerful tool for diplomacy'


Guillaume Gomez, head chef of the Elysee Palace in France, wears the Meilleur Ouvrier de France
(MOF) medal. / Courtesy of So French Delices

Elysee Palace's head chef celebrates Korea-French cultural festival

By Yun Suh-young

French diplomat and strategist Talleyrand once said to Napoleon Bonaparte, "Give me a good chef and I shall give you good treaties."

Some may tilt their head wondering how gastronomy can influence diplomacy, but in fact food plays the behind-the-scenes role at the negotiating tables.

French President Francois Hollande acknowledged the role of gastronomy at an annual meeting of the Club des Chefs des Chefs (CCC) in Paris in 2012, saying "When the cuisine is top quality, I can dare to hope that accords, discussions are positive."

The Club des Chefs des Chefs is an exclusive association of chefs to the world's presidents organized by a French businessman, Gilles Bragard, in 1977. The name plays on the French word "chef" which could mean both a chef and leader so it translates to "The Club of Chefs of the Chiefs" in English.

Food unites

Guillaume Gomez, head chef of the Elysee Palace in France and a member of the CCC, agreed that gastronomy plays a special role in the society upon his first visit to Seoul.

"Politics may divide people but the table reunites them. The concept of "diplogastronomy" is a good way to bridge people and countries. When you make bridges between people around the table, you can easily talk about culture, politics and many other things," said Gomez during an interview with The Korea Times.

Gomez was visiting Seoul to participate in a week-long culinary event organized by "So French Delices," a committee that aims to promote French cuisine, products and ingredients globally, as part of public diplomacy. The event started off the Korea-France Cultural Exchange Year on March 23, celebrating the 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries which falls on June 4. The festival included promotional events at local restaurants by chefs from France and a street food festival held from March 25 to 26.

Gomez was in charge of the opening day's cocktail reception at The Shilla hotel on March 23 which celebrated the beginning of the festival.

"They wanted French food for the cocktail reception so I didn't get to experience working with Korean ingredients," he said.

Gomez was appointed to the head chef of the palace in 2013 after his predecessor Bernard Vaussion retired from 30 years of service. Gomez is the third chef since President Charles de Gaulle following his predecessors Joel Normand and Bernard Vaussion. Joel Normand served for 40 years at the palace.

"When they retired, the sous-chef took their place because it's natural to do so. But there's no set rule about this," he said.

"I worked with my predecessor for almost 20 years. It was natural to succeed him although the president makes the decision. I don't know if my two sous-chefs will succeed me when I retire because they are older than me."

Gomez was the youngest recipient of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) at age 25 which is a medal bestowed to the best craftsman in France every three to four years. It is the highest medal in this field and at his time, out of the 700 who applied, only 24 received it. Worldwide only about 100 chefs have this title among those who are alive.

Gomez says receiving the medal from President Chirac was the most memorable experience of working at the Elysee.

"The President gives out some of the medals and since I worked for him, he personally awarded me the medal," he said. Chefs with the medal are distinguished by the collar of their uniform which has the French flag imprinted.

A never-boring job

Gomez started his career at the Elysee Palace in 1997 at the age of 19 during the presidential term of Jacque Chirac. He initially joined to work for only a year as part of the military duty. He decided that he wouldn't stay for more than two years maximum, but now he's been there for 19 years.

When asked what made him stay for so long, he said, "Because it's never boring. At first when I started at the Elysee, I said it was crazy. There is no routine in this job."

But it's that spontaneity of the job that kept him excited all through the years.

"Every day is a new day and every day you have to invent and create something new. You have new work every day. It's exciting to be cooking for heads of states and feel that you're part of the history," he said.

Before coming to the palace, he worked for three years at a two-starred Michelin restaurant and two years at a small local restaurant.

"At a restaurant, you can choose what you want to cook, but at the Elysee, the kitchen has to adapt to the occasion," he said. "You never know how many people will eat, what you'll be preparing so everything is different. It's entirely different from working at a restaurant because there is no set menu."

It is also a challenge because the president travels often and Gomez has to accompany him when needed. There used to be a private chef who cooked for unofficial occasions, but now the kitchen is united and Gomez does everything.

Still, he was a man always looking on the bright side. When asked if there were any difficulties, he said "not really."

"At the end of the day, you cook. The work is the same. But we cannot make a mistake whereas at a restaurant, if you make a mistake, you can pay for the customer. But if all the teams are well prepared and all involved, everything will go right," said Gomez.

"Everything is difficult in life. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, there's no reason for doing it."

Since the chefs are not in the frontline of diplomacy, they don't exactly know what goes on at the negotiating table and therefore cannot testify as a witness, but Gomez says he hears about them.

"If the heads of states stay long, it's proof that they enjoyed the food. We're not interested in whether a deal is signed or not, but rather the fact that they enjoyed the meal. That's our job," he said.

On the subject of the presidents' food preferences, Gomez refused to answer, saying it was against the tradition.

"We can't talk about the presidents or the past presidents. It's a tradition rather than a secret. This discretion is common to all the Chefs des Chefs. It's one of the elements for the continuity of all these chefs. Presidents know they can count on us. Trust is very important," he said.

Culinary ambassador

A chef at the palace has the responsibility to promote French gastronomy traditions and the French terroir, says Gomez. That is the reason for him to hop on airplanes to attend culinary events such as the one in Seoul, although most of the time, he has to do it during his own holidays.

"I don't mind working during my holidays. It's my job to promote French cuisine. It's normal. I'm a citizen before a chef. If we want people to enjoy French food and want tourists coming to France, I have a responsibility as a citizen to do this," he said.

His philosophy on cuisine is "all about sharing."

"When you host someone, prepare food for someone, it's thinking about them and sharing, and caring about them. Probably 98 percent of the chefs would think the same way. If you don't want to share, there's no meaning in cooking," he said.

When the reporter commented about how most chefs seemed to be warmhearted, the hearty chef laughed saying, "Yes, and we have a big belly too."

Asked if he ever thought of quitting the job, he said, "no."

"I'm not in jail. I'm staying because I really enjoy what I'm doing. If I don't enjoy it, I'll leave, even tomorrow. If you're not enjoying what you're doing, there's no meaning," he said.

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