food diplomacy through the story of a meal

Archive for Southern California Leadership Network

Leading the Health Care Revolution: Public Diplomacy with Adversaries

What happens when your arch-enemy has a solution to better your own country’s problem?  In a July 2012 NY Times Magazine article by Suzy Hansen, she highlights the amazing work of MacArthur Fellow Dr. Aaron Shirley in the Mississippi Delta.

I met Dr. Shirley during my time organizing MacArthur Fellows on meetings of mutual interest.   His deep and personal commitment to taking care of the people of Jackson Mississippi is awe-inspiring.  A quiet, but keenly politically astute man, took a dilapidated shopping mall in Jackson and created the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation. In a one-stop shop building, folks could get preventative treatments, education, imaging, and other medical services under one roof.

After years of banging his head against local politicians, Dr. Shirley has moved into the global fight of bringing an innovative health care model found in Iran to his community.  Rarely do you hear about the socially and politically disenfranchised of Jackson, Mississippi in the same sentence as an Iranian health care delivery, but this creative vision towards providing excellent care knows no political boundaries.

In a nutshell, Dr. Shirley was moved by the Iranian model of eliminating the disparities of healthcare between the urban and rural communities  By eliminating geographical disparities (i.e.: bring health care to communities) then we can level the field of sound and quality care for an entire population.  Dr. Shirley’s community is an epidemic of poverty–with diseases that can be prevented.  How can one harness the millions of dollars that Mississippi gets and actually provide quality health care to its people.  Band-aid approaches will not address generations of neglect, invisibility, and political grand-standing.

In public diplomacy terms, Dr. Shirley was exposed through an exchange experience in Germany, listening to a delegation of Iranian government officials, to find a collaborative way that a public-private organization can affect positive change.  Creating opportunities for rural health care (either in Iran or the Mississippi Delta) is one filled with creativity, listening, engagement, and collaboration. You can read the entire article here.

Seeing health care as a social justice issue is not new to Dr. Shirley or to the public diplomat, but implementing and evaluating its impact on foreign publics is a new area.  What is also unique is that these communities have not been seen as a natural fit given there is a lack of  historical trust between U.S.-Iranian governments.  But, with the creative and keen insights from Dr. Shirley, he as continued a life’s work caring for his public.

Dr. Shirley, and his team, are what is called citizen diplomats.  Finding creative solutions to a systemic problem between adversaries can teach leaders how to approach what are seen as intractable problems and within communities.

Diabetes, obesity, high-blood pressure, lack of available and fresh fruit and vegetables, over reliance on processed food, and other “first-world poverty” health issues are killing our families, as they are killing other families across the world.  Iranian’s health-houses are located in rural communities.  Communities can come together to get the services and care they need from trusted voices from their own village/city.  It also keeps a community connected with a goal of taking care of each other.

Dr. Shirley’s team worked hard to set up health houses in the Delta.  It is now incumbent upon his team to monitor and evaluate how effective this model is in reducing mortality, reducing health care costs, and transforming the disparity between urban-rural health care delivery.

If we cannot see our adversaries beyond the way our government defines them, then the hope for peace and collaborations will be all for naught.  It is up to us, to search beyond the status quo to find creativity in all we do.  Who would have thought that a doctor in the Mississippi Delta would be inspired by a rural Iranian health care model as a way to take care of his community?

Dr. Shirley inspires me, as he should you, to always seek out creative and innovative approaches to what may be intractable problems. During my Leadership Los Angeles Fellowship as part of the Southern California Leadership Network, we met with amazingly creative health care leaders.  They refuse to bow under pressure (financial, political, or cultural) in not providing care to the communities of Los Angeles.  From the doctors, analysts, policy makers, to the foundations who give support, tenants of public diplomacy are at play 24/7.  Understanding the role of “place” is at the root of care, whether in Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta, or Iran’s countryside.  Leaders who integrate these values are those who will make the most difference in their publics.

For added luck – today I will be making black-eyed peas, greens, and copper pennies (carrots) to give 2013 all the good fortune that is needed!

Dr. Aaron Shirley

Dr. Aaron Shirley (center seated)


Our gal Hillary and the importance of food diplomacy

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton never once wanted us to think of her as some little woman waiting for her husband to come home from work with an evening cocktail and a home-cooked meal.  But that does not mean she does not know the persuasive power of food as a diplomatic tool.  She’s turned the State Department kitchen into a tool of international diplomacy.

Clinton put her Chief of Protocol, Capricia Penavic Marshall, in charge of what’s come to be known as “food diplomacy.”

Classic French food that used to dominate diplomatic functions is largely gone.  New and innovative chefs, cuisines, ideas are bubbling up all over State from social media, and now culinary creativity.  Foreign diplomats are served American food with fresh local ingredients, along with reminders of home.

Even in the White House, the desire to know when food comes from and how it informs who we are and what we stand for can be seen in the First Lady’s garden.  Listen to a great NPR story from this past May on how the garden came about and why it is an important aspect of presenting the U.S. to foreign publics.

“It’s really important because they’re going to talk about some tough issues with one another,” Marshall said. “We want the framework of those tough discussions to be relaxing, to be welcoming, to be inviting.”
Marshall says that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the State Department recently, he was surprised and pleased to find good hummus at the table.  My colleague’s crowdsourcing project, JEWCER, has a project titled, “Hummus Wars” which brings together foodies and publics of Israel and Lebanon for the coveted title of “best hummus.”Christopher James, the State Department’s deputy chef, said they use a spice visitors are accustomed to or they present a dish in a way that has never been seen before in their country.

And when China’s Vice President Xi Jinping visited this year, a top Chinese-American chef was brought in to cook Chinese delicacies. “Vice President Xi’s eyes lit up,” Marshall said. “He was so honored by the gesture.”

What I think is missing is the story.  Rarely do we use foreign foods, dishes, recipes, and spices to inform our narrative of  U.S. foreign policy to global publics.  By integrating this story and our values behind it, we can demonstrate respect, engagement, and listening through the food to deepen international relationships.

Even this week, acclaimed chef, Jose Andres, created the menu for a meeting of protocol chiefs from all over the world.  He went on to say, “I believe that dinner, gathering people around a table, you have a true opportunity to send hidden messages,” Andres said. “… Through a menu and through the food that you put on a plate.”

To remind the foreign diplomats of the tragic losses and recovery from Hurricane Katrina, Andres served Louisiana Gulf shrimp. “Doing this simple gesture all of a sudden at the State Department is sending a message that we need to be supporting American ingredients, we need to be supporting our fishermen.”

It would be hard to prove that good food makes for better diplomacy especially at a time when nations are so sharply divided on so many issues – but don’t tell that to Andres, who believes all things are possible through food. He said, “With better food and a happy table, probably, probably, we will have a better world, a happier world.”

To watch CBS News’ piece on Clinton’s food diplomacy project, click here.

To watch Jose Andres’ 2011 TED talk, “Creativity in Cooking Can Solve Our Biggest Challenges.”

Links to others talking about food diplomacy:

Twitter:  Gastrodiplomacy


Smorgesboard LA – Exploring the Culinary Underbelly of Los Angeles

Culture Kitchen – Delivering Ethnic Food Kits

Miss Lunch – Lunch in the Loft

New Friends Table – Underground Supper Club in Paris and London


On Friday, I participated in my Southern California Leadership Network L.A. Leaders Fellowship.  The theme was art and culture.  There is plenty of content for this topic, but the specific speakers and site visits organized were simply engaging.  What each of us was charged to find is how we can incorporate art and culture in our leadership tool-box.  But, I also think that the more critical issue was looking at ways that creativity inform who we are, what we stand for, our civic values, and then how we engage with individuals in our personal and professional life.

From an examination of the creative sector in Los Angeles (for more information see the OTIS College of Design Creative Economy Report 2011), to arts and education or rather “art equity” from kindergarten to higher education to civil entrepreneurship in the business sector and finally community-based art and cultural experiences the underlying theme is that the huge cuts to the arts in Los Angeles (direct costs and elimination of programs) will severely put our communities at a global disadvantage.  For too many years, the decrease in arts funding and the lack of creative solutions were thought to be something that would “solve itself”, however, we are at the crisis point and there is nary a solution in sight.

From the growing global influence in higher education (South Korea, Asia, Gulf Region), to a third-world public education system, to communities who are too busy surviving and can’t afford (time or money) to participate in local art initiative, we have shifted from the creative innovators to “followers who cannot compete in a global workplace.

As sad as this is, the most troublesome aspect is the impact that the elimination of arts funding in K-12 education.  Art is not some ancillary aspect of eduction.  Having a well-rounded, critical thinking, civically engaged person must include all subjects from reading, math, art, sports, sciences, etc.  My site visit was to Inner-City Arts, a non-profit that brings art education to children in the inner-city (within a 3-5 mile radius from their site).  They have been visited by royalty (Prince William and Kate) and honored by governments.  Their sole focus is to bring arts to kids who would never have access.  While the origins of the organization came about in a very spiritual manner, they have not lost sight on what their core mission is and how creative leadership gets them to fulfill their mandate.

After a long day, the creative take-aways were succinctly shared by Charmaine Jefferson, Executive Director of the California African American Museum.  With arms like Michelle Obama and the energy-level of an impassioned and engaging politician, she wove a passionate narrative from her time as a public pool attendant to dancer to attorney to civic leader and how each of these points on her life’s timeline have been an act of creative engagement.  The most effective creative leaders know how to connect the dots in all aspects of their life and those connections create synergistic benefits.  When you begin to demonstrate creative leadership, then you are showing your authentic self.  Each job, action, civic role presents opportunities to find our inner-performer and then to show the world what we are good at.  It is at once personal and professional.

Lastly, Laura Zucker, Executive Director, from the L.A. County Arts Commission came to us to talk about how art (any kind of creative expression) makes us who we are, as citizens, producers, consumers, and moral citizens.  The County is undertaking a food diplomacy and cultural project with the organization, Fallen Fruit, to bring fresh produce to the diverse communities of Los Angeles.  Parts of Los Angeles are a food desert (area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. They are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems. Food deserts are also linked with supermarket shortages.  This certainly does not surprise the civically engaged Los Angelo.  However, to have an arts and cultural entity taking on both food issues and public art project is amazing.  The Del Aire Park arts project is an installation that functions as a public fruit park with a planting of over 400+ fruit trees.

Walking out of the session left me feeling inspired in so many ways.  From how I can implement the ideas into my blogs, my work, and in my kitchen.

I realized that my artistic expression comes from my cooking.  Like many other artists, I have to cook.  It is just something that I need to do.  I drove home thinking about what I could do at home to express myself creatively.  So here is what I came up with and the result was on park.

Leek Asparagus Ricotta Chick-Pea Fritters
Makes 8-10 Fritters

1/2 cup skim ricotta cheese
1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed of woody ends and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 leek, cleaned and sliced from the white section only
2 TBL butter
2 eggs
3 TBL multi-grain pancake mix
3 TBL chick pea flour
1 TBL marjoram, finely diced
1/4 TSP salt
1/4 TSP pepper

Sautee leeks in (1) TBL butter until soft.  Add marjoram, salt & pepper and sweat down until leeks are soft and translucent.  Meanwhile roast asparagus is 400 degree oven and slice into 1/2″ pieces.  Put all vegetables in large bowl and let cool 20 minutes.

In a mini food prep, process the two eggs and ricotta cheese until smooth.  Add to the vegetables and mix together.

Add multi-grain pancake mix, chick pea flour to the vegetable mixture and incorporate until it is a thick pancake batter.

Heat large skillet with non-stick spray and remaining TBL of butter.  Using a 1/4 measuring cup, place (4) fritters in the pan and let cook under medium flame.  Watch the fritters to see when then begin to set-up.  Or you can sneak a peek at the underside to see if they have browned.  Flip them over (one flip is needed) and cook on the other side.  Make sure the inside of the fritter is cooked through.

Place on a paper towel and sprinkle with kosher salt.  Repeat with the rest of the batter.  Keep warm on a sheet tray in an oven at 200 degrees until ready to eat.

I eat them plain or with a bit of marinara sauce and parmesean cheese.  They are amazing for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

And that is how I was an innovative and creative cook after my leadership session

How many grandmas does it take to cook a meal?

I have completed my two-day orientation as part of Leadership L.A. with the Southern California Leadership Network and it was quite  informative.  Some takeaways that can be related back to food diplomacy surround the body.  Not just in the nourishment or caloric intake, but how does our food stories inform us as leaders in our jobs, volunteer organization, or with our family and friends.

Leading in the workplace takes a lot of skills, but to be an “authentic” leader, one cannot consider how it affects the body.  Between stress, inattention, and old scripts, these can take a toll. The word authentic is defined by individuals in leadership positions who demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently and lead with their hearts as well as their heads.   You must understand the story of your life.  Part of this knowing is how you came to be who you are.  Who and what were defining influences and what resonated the most.  Was it a friend, a teacher, a writer, an artist?  Was it a holiday, a vacation, a moment in time?  Throughout our life we are faced with situations that can inform us as authentic leaders, are we listening?

The body holds many clues for us.  With an increased multitasking society, are we giving ourselves the attention we need to have clarity of thought, creative ideas, or time to contemplate solutions for implementation?  Does the collective stress of job, home, family, friends, the world weigh on us so that our bones and bodies are collapsing in fatigue?  Can we sit still, in a chair, with our back engaged and our feet rooted into the floor so that every other muscle can relax?

Inattention, stress, fatigue affects us all.  For some we retreat to food, the fuel for keeping us going.  It is also something we do to remind ourselves of comfort, home, security, and joy.  Some of us do this in isolation, and others collectively.  However, I would believe that most of us reach back into our family food narrative in order to make sense of the chaos.  What does sharing a meal around a table with others give us–human connections.

For those who wish to share their leadership through food, we usually read about a chef or organization that tackles a large social issue such as poverty, homelessness, hunger.  However, there are those who work on the micro-level and one such person comes to mind.

Staten Island restaurateur, Joe Scaravella, wanted to create authentic home-spun place and bypassed “name” chefs when searching for the leader of his kitchen.  After losing his mom and sister, he missed sitting down with family for home-cooked meals. So he created something different.  A place that can reach right into people’s hearts.  A restaurant that you have to go out for a home-cooked meal.

Joe’s food narrative is the joy and deeply held meaning that home-cooked food meant for him.  Being Italian, he wanted to give others the experience of eating “nonna’s” food and the shared values that anybody’s nonna would bring to the family table.

As an authentic leader, Joe’s desire to share a piece of a family memory around food that was deep and profound and subsequently gave him deep satisfaction in his work.

Enoteca Maria doesn’t make a lot of money off the restaurant, he says. Instead, he does it for the homey — not to mention lively — atmosphere the eight or so nonnas create.

To  listen to the NPR story, click here.

Meet the “Grandmas

Make your favorite food based on a memory and toast the person that gave it to you.  Then, share that recipe with a friend.


Lemon, Lavender, Lardons and Leadership

Oh yes, the daily grind of life has put the blog on the back burner, but not for long.  I will be more active as I plan to use the blog as a vehicle to share with you a new endeavor.  Starting next week, I will be a 2012 Fellow in the “Leadership L.A.” program at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.  This is an opportunity to refine one’s leadership skills under the rubric of civic engagement.  There will be 49 other fellows from governmental, corporate, NGOs which represent areas such as banking, culture, LGBT youth, utilities, health care, politics, education, entertainment, etc.  I am so looking forward to learning about these individuals and see where creative collaborations may develop.

My area of emphasis is food diplomacy.  For me, this defined how governments, organization, corporations use food as a narrative to teach, share, define, and promote foreign and domestic policies to the others.  We all have a story, a memory, a taste that we can say transcended our values and beliefs.  Whether you have come from El Salvador, Iran, Guam, or France–you have a story that can be told through food and memory.  It carries with it one’s history (generational recipes) as well as an individual imprint (fusion and modernizing).  It takes us back to formative moments (first holiday, first date, first child) as well as we seek to incorporate other cultures (multiculturalism, bi-racial, bi-coastal).  I believe that when we break bread with another, we have allowed ourselves to be open to another.  This is especially the case when we cook for others.

So how does food diplomacy and leadership development come together?  One has to see their role as a leader as a catalyst and not an individual powerbroker.  In any recipe or food narrative, you can achieve success in the mechanics, individual spices, ingredients, preparations, but you will never have a complete and enjoyable experience if it does not come together and is shared with others.  Leaders do not work in isolation.  The innovative and creative ones assemble the best teams that cover all skills, and bringing diverse and unique voices to the table.

Effective public diplomacy does the same.  There are no solitary actors who can effect change, they need to be part of a strong team where governments, international actors, corporations and practitioners can contribute their intellectual and compassionate capital to the issue.   I plan to look at civic engagement from my lens–food diplomacy.  I will be introduced to many facets of the public life:  art, culture, education, transportation, law and society, health care, economic development, neighborhood development, water and the environment with 49 other committed colleagues who also love our city.

Check in monthly as I walk the streets of Los Angeles and discover how sweet, bitter, sour and salty she is.








For more food graffiti, click here.