A Friday Chat With Ameer Kotecha20 May 2022
As London and the UK gear up for a summer of royal celebrations to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we are joined by a very special guest for this week’s Friday Chat. By day, Ameer Kotecha works as a diplomat in the Foreign Office; by night, he’s passionate about food, and in particular how dining and diplomacy go hand in hand. We talk to Ameer about his fascinating exploration of ‘gastrodiplomacy’, and how it came together to form The Platinum Jubilee Cookbook.
Hi Ameer! Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in both food and diplomacy?
I work as a British diplomat at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but I’ve always had a deep interest in food and cooking. I briefly considered becoming a professional chef, and did a short stint at a Michelin starred restaurant before going into diplomacy. Also, on top of my day job, I ran a pop-up street food restaurant in Pimlico for a couple of years. It was hilarious – I’d do Monday to Friday in the Westminster bubble, before escaping it to run this tiny pop up restaurant out of the front yard of a bric-a-brac shop in Pimlico, and occasionally my work colleagues would peer in and be shocked to see me behind the service counter! For the last few years I’ve also been doing food writing: I have a regular food column in The Spectator, and it was this foray into food writing that started the journey to producing the Jubilee cookbook.
Okay, so what exactly inspired you to write this book?
I’d always had this thought about writing a book about ‘gastrodiplomacy’, exploring how food functions as a diplomatic tool. I love the idea that “a nation presents itself on the plate.” By which I mean, it’s an incredibly important aspect of a country’s identity, and a way to understand so much about a nation’s culture. I hear so often from fellow diplomats that they came to understand a new country they were posted to by eating its food.
So then essentially I pitched this book idea, partly as a Foreign Office recipe collection and partly stories and anecdotes about gastrodiplomacy over the years. That led me to the publishers, and then the Jubilee link came because lots of the recipes I’d been sourcing had been served to The Queen and other members of the Royal Family over the course of their travels around the world.
And tell us about the book and what we can expect to find in it?
The book is three different things brought together. First, there are seventy recipes from British diplomatic missions around the world (and 70 is a very deliberate nod to The Queen’s 70 years on the Throne). Second, there are diplomatic dinner party anecdotes over the years: gossipy tales from the ambassador’s table; funny stories about British diplomats going overseas and encountering a totally new diet and cuisine; and above all the real joy that British diplomats experience in discovering a new country through its food – understanding the people and culture and heritage better as a result. Finally, it is full of profiles of great British food and drink products. One of the roles of our embassies is to fly the flag for British exports including British food and drink – things like Welsh lamb, Scottish salmon, Northern Irish beef and English cider. So I’ve included lots of snippets of food history about iconic household products like OXO stock cubes and Marmite, and other delicious things that are produced here.
And why is food diplomacy so important?
There are lots of quotes about this from famous people in the book, but a simple one I like is by former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who said “dining is the soul of diplomacy.” Also, a famous French ambassador Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord once said “give me a good chef and I’ll give you good treaties.” I think what you see is that official entertainment, done cleverly, is an important part of what diplomats do. So often, to get to the negotiating table, diplomats go via the dinner table. This really comes out from all the conversations I’ve had with ambassadors, that when they’re trying to have hard-nosed negotiations about thorny issues, sharing a meal really helps to build a rapport and arrive at a productive outcome.
So what about interesting anecdotes we can expect to read?
Some of the best anecdotes I think are examples of how British ambassadors have flown the flag for the best of British food, often confounding expectations. Former French President Jacques Chirac once said about us Brits that “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that. After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food” – so he was clearly not a fan – but British food has really changed over the last few decades. There has been a new appreciation for our diverse gastronomy, and people recognising the amazing quality of the produce here. For example, English sparkling wine now regularly beats Champagne in blind tastings, and we now have more varieties of British cheese than there are French cheeses. You only have to look at the full English breakfast, the Sunday roast, traditional afternoon tea and so on to see that British cuisine has powerful selling points. And you can see this in shows like the Great British Bake Off, which has taken off around the world.
On the subject of baking, tell us about the Platinum Pudding competition. What gave you this wonderful idea?
The Platinum Pudding idea basically came to me when I was looking at historic desserts named after royals – the Victoria Sponge is an obvious one, but also things like Battenberg cake (created to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters in 1884), and Crêpes Suzette (said to be named after the dinner guest of the former Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII). So I thought it surprising that we didn’t have an equivalent pudding for the present Queen. I got together with the Royal Household, Fortnum & Mason and The Big Lunch (who champion all the Jubilee street parties) to launch a nationwide competition to come up with one. There were 5,000 entries from all over the country, and an age range of 8 – 108. We were in middle of lockdown when I came up with the idea, so I also thought grandchildren baking together with their grandparents and so on would be so lovely and a way of bringing families back together after so long of having had to stay apart.
And finally, how does Searcys tie into all this?
Alongside the embassy recipes, I asked seven of London’s most iconic bars to design a cocktail to celebrate The Queen and British diplomacy, one of which was Searcys Brasserie and Champagne Bar in St Pancras. They designed a new cocktail called Britanic’all, an ensemble of English sparkling wine, King’s Ginger liqueur from Berry Bros. & Rudd and British gin. I’m so pleased Searcys’ glorious creation is in the book and I’m thrilled to be holding the launch party for the book at a Searcys venue, at 116 Pall Mall.
To try our limited edition Brittanic’all cocktail created by Searcys Drinks Ambassador Bruno Pelletier for The Jubilee Cookbook, click here.
To purchase The Platinum Jubilee Cookbook, click here.
THE OFFICIAL JUBILEE COOKBOOK LAUNCH
We are delighted to have contributed a Searcys cocktail recipe to The Platinum Jubilee Cookbook, which includes a collection of dishes and stories from Her Majesty’s representatives around the world. We will be hosting the launch drinks reception of the Platinum Cookbook at the grand 116 Pall Mall on Tuesday 24 May, and we would love for you to join us!
SEARCYS JUBILEE AFTERNOON TEA
Scones, delicious cakes and perfectly brewed tea. Join us for a quintessentially British Afternoon Tea in the stunning setting of The Gherkin, St Pancras by Searcys, 116 Pall Mall, The Orangery at Blenheim Palace or the iconic Pump Room in Bath.
JUBILEE CHAMPAGNE EXPERIENCE DINNER
In celebration of Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we invite you to celebrate and toast her at our special “Champagne Experience” dinner at the Gherkin, with panoramic views across the City. Leading this “Champagne Experience” is Searcys friend, Martin Dibben, Consul of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne de Grande Brittanie and former employee of the Queen. Martin will talk you through the background to our selected champagnes, which have all received Royal Warrants from Her Majesty.