Celebrity chefs Amanda Freitag and Michael Solomonov discuss culinary diplomacy

Perry World House hosted a lively conversation moderated by former Visiting Fellow Lauren Bernstein that highlighted how chefs can promote cross-cultural awareness through global culinary engagement. 

Lauren Bernstein, Michael Solomonov, Michael Weisberg, and Amanda Freitag pose in front of a Perry World House sign.
At Perry World House, (left to right) Lauren Bernstein, founder and CEO of The Culinary Diplomacy Project, Zahav Chef Michael Solomonov, Perry World House Interim Director Michael Weisberg, and celebrity chef Amanda Freitag. (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

Food is an indelible instrument of foreign policy. A good meal can literally bring people to the table–and keep them there–to learn more about one another. But introducing national gastronomy abroad is a delicate process. Chefs must listen to and learn from the history and stories that inform the table customs of others. They must share their own culinary journeys in a way that fosters connection.

Celebrity chefs Amanda Freitag and Michael Solomonov tackled the topic of culinary diplomacy at a Perry World House event last week. The talk was moderated by Lauren Bernstein, a 2022-2023 Perry World House Visiting Fellow and founder and CEO of The Culinary Diplomacy Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote cross-cultural awareness through global culinary engagement. 

The lively conversation before a packed house at Perry World House covered a wide range of topics, from how their travels have inspired their cooking and bridged cultural divides, to how they approach making their food accessible and authentic, to the best way to source spices (and how long they stay fresh). 

Freitag, a renowned chef and a judge on Food Network’s “Chopped,” started things off by sharing her experiences from a trip to Armenia this summer as part of a collaboration between the U.S. Embassy and the Culinary Diplomacy Project.

She described the rich food culture and deep culinary history of Armenia, which takes great pride in their wines, cheese, and spices. On the ground in the capital of Yerevan, her team did everything from holding cooking classes and competitions at a culinary school, to meeting with chefs and female entrepreneurs and putting on a food and wine festival. 

“Everybody was excited to show me what they do and how they do it and I got to learn a lot about their culture, and cooked a lot of their foods as well, including learning how to make lavash, which is not as easy as it looks,” she said. The Armenians she met wanted to ensure she took away what a huge food culture they have there and implored her to spread the word in the U.S., which she has done every chance she gets, she said. 

“I think that’s the biggest benefit to culinary diplomacy, to go to another country, have those relationships, connect over food without even speaking the language,” she said, noting she doesn’t speak a word of Armenian. “When there’s food at the table, we have no problem communicating.”

Trips like that are an effective form of diplomacy, she said.

Solomonov, a champion of Israel’s diverse culinary landscape and chef of the trailblazing Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, shared what inspired him to launch an Israeli restaurant and the challenges of highlighting cuisine from a region that has such diverse gastronomies and such inherent conflicts. “I just felt like where I was from had not been represented accurately,” he said. “We get in this habit here of turning on the television and hearing the news for four minutes and deciding that we know foreign policy and what’s happening globally.”

He knew it was a challenge that he was undertaking to incorporate Israeli and Palestinian dishes, as well as others from the region, but “I wanted to do something that was meaningful. And I wanted to represent a place that is often misunderstood.”

As far as diplomacy goes, he noted, “we’re talking about one of the most contentious discussions ever, and to constantly reevaluate what my role is, what my power is, what my responsibility is to promote commonality between Israelis and Palestinians is a question that I try to answer or at least contemplate every single day.”

Freitag and Bernstein shared stories from another culinary diplomatic mission in 2019 to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, where Freitag was able to cook with women who made food from their homelands that they had fled.

One woman in particular wanted to share her story with them but was shy and would only discuss it after they ate, Freitag said. Once the food was on the table and they started to eat and relax, she shared her story of leaving her home, and that the one thing she took with her were her recipes that had been passed down, generation to generation, so that those recipes will live on.

“Even though she left her home, she left her family, she left her husband, she had heartache, she had health issues, she continued to cook the food that reminded her of home, and that was the thing that gave her comfort, and she wanted to share that with us,” Freitag said, adding there wasn’t a dry eye at the table. “I wish I had a better word for the generosity: the generosity of spirit, of food, of that culture, in sharing their stories and the love of that recipe passed down from generation to generation, whatever it may be.”

Bernstein added that with so much television global and in syndication, it has also opened doors for her team, including leading to a meeting with the Princess of Jordan, who was a huge fan of “Chopped,” Freitag and her co-judge Marc Murphy. “She was a big fan of Amanda and Marc, and it was wild. She was really nervous to meet them, and they were really nervous to meet her,” she said. “It really does make people connect and feel that they know each other and learn about each other.”

Pointing to foods like kibbeh and falafel that overlap in many cultures in which there are tensions, Bernstein asked Solomonov why he thinks those dishes don’t instead build connections to their commonality. 

“If you are marginalized, or oppressed, or the other negative things that humans do to one another, and you see somebody else taking credit for your dish,” it’s upsetting, he said. “In terms of people who are displaced and trying to grasp at what home is, these traditions are sometimes the only things that they have.” 

The discussion moved into a Q & A session, with questions ranging from how Anthony Bourdain contributed to culinary diplomacy to why alcohol and food seem to go hand-in-hand to how the chefs decide pricing structures and names for dishes.

“I will start my question with two words: dessert hummus,” said Lauren Anderson, Perry World House’s director of programs, causing playful revulsion from Solomonov and big laughs from the audience. “I wanted to ask, is something like this cultural appropriation or appreciation, and what are the best and worst examples that you’ve seen?”

Solomonov replied that he’s accused of appropriation all the time and feels that it is flattering when people cook his food. Freitag notes that in her job as a “Chopped” judge, it can be tricky when a contestant presents something as, say, carpaccio, and it’s made with fully cooked ingredients. “So, do we want to correct, or do we want to squash creativity? We have to somehow keep some things in the proper definition of what they are,” she said.

But Solomonov had the final word on the matter.

“If there is one thing everyone takes away from this, it is that dessert hummus is not acceptable.”