PARIS – They feed the powerful and are most at home in the kitchen. But French President Francois Hollande contends that the chefs who cook for the leaders of the world have a behind-the-scenes role at the negotiating tables of international diplomacy.
"If your dish is a miss, it's more difficult to plead a cause," Hollande told nearly 20 chefs on a visit Tuesday to the presidential Elysee Palace.
What could be the world's most exclusive gastronomic association, the Club des Chefs des Chefs — a club of chefs for political leaders — brings these gastronomic masters together each year in a different country. The elite club has been in Paris since Sunday, after a five-day visit to Berlin that included a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Their reception by European leaders underscores that diplomacy is one part negotiations and one part the delicious sauces cooked up in their chefs' kitchens. Hollande and Merkel have bumped heads over the European financial crisis — and whether to sweeten the austerity pot with growth incentives.
"He gave a very nice speech on the role of gastronomy in diplomacy," said the club's president, Christian Garcia, the chef to Prince Albert II of Monaco. "He said that when our cuisine is top quality, he can dare to hope that accords, discussions are positive."
Donning impeccable white toques and white aprons, the chefs toured the kitchen of the Elysee Palace.
"There are copper pots that date to 1845," some from the Chateau of Fontainebleau, Garcia said. "It was truly moving."
Among those present were White House Chef Cristeta Comerford, the chef to Queen Elizabeth II of England, Mark Flanagan, and Hilton Little, chef to South African presidents, including Nelson Mandela.
Bernard Vaussion, the Elysee Palace chef who has fed six French presidents, was the host for the Paris visit. Colleague Ulrich Kerz, who cooks for Merkel, led the group during their visit to Germany.
"It's already difficult to bring together heads of state, but (to bring together) chefs who cook during those times ...," Hollande said admiringly as he surveyed the gathering of tall white hats.
The elite chefs' club was created in 1977 by Gilles Bragard, a businessman who created the outfits worn by international chefs, and had its beginnings at the French gastronomic temple in Collonges au Mont d'Or, outside Lyon, where the celebrated chef Paul Bocuse now reigns.
Earlier Tuesday, the chefs dined on langoustine and lamb from the Correze region of central France, where Hollande served for years as mayor. That meal, topped with wild strawberries and mascarpone sorbet, was served at the Jules Vernes restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, prepared by another famed chef, Alain Ducasse.
Ducasse, with restaurants around the world, epitomizes what the French president said was another attribute of top chefs: their role in promoting the products of their nations around the world.
Hollande noted that during his recent meeting with Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the two discussed a "joint venture" to promote a hybrid French and Thai cuisine.
"I consider gastronomy not just part of the art of living, of diplomacy but also a veritable economic motor," said Hollande.