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The tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches and ice cream sundaes were tiny, but the news was huge: The State Department had partnered with the James Beard

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Maria Hines Tapped by State Department for New Culinary Diplomacy Program

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The tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches and ice cream sundaes were tiny, but the news was huge: The State Department had partnered with the James Beard Foundation to fold food into its "formal and public diplomatic efforts," appointing dozens of leading U.S. chefs to its newly-created American Chef Corps.

Corps members - including Seattle's Maria Hines and Portland's Naomi Pomeroy and Cathy Whims - may be asked to entertain international dignitaries; host visiting culinary professionals or participate in educational programs when they travel abroad.

"By showcasing the best of American cuisine and creativity, we can show our guests a bit about ourselves," U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall told the Associated Press, linking the project to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's longstanding belief that food can bring people together.

To celebrate the initiative, the State Department last Friday hosted a celeb-heavy party that reportedly wowed department staffers and definitely impressed cynical reporters (I scored an invite by virtue of being in town for the Association of Food Journalists' annual conference: Watch this space for more D.C. dispatches in the next few days.)

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As more than a few attendees remarked, if disaster struck the floor where the reception was being held, the nation's upscale food scene would have come to a standstill. Former White House chefs, Top Chef winners and James Beard award winners sipped on American wines and whiskeys; snacked on bison, Benton's bacon and Bristol Bay salmon and cooed over the "miniature comfort foods" created by New York's Peter Callahan Catering, including bite-sized pheasant under glass. They idled around a meeting table set with the crackers, dips and nuts that Secretary of State Clinton believes are conducive to productive negotiation sessions.

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Although Hines doesn't yet know exactly how she'll serve the State Department, the Beard Foundation's executive vice-president Mitchell Davis says the Best Chef award winner is a good fit for the groundbreaking program.

"Maria participated in our pilot Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change at Blackberry Farm in July, where we saw her passion for food, her interest in larger food-system issues, and her leadership skills," Davis e-mailed in response to a question about Hines' inclusion in the Corps. "Like many chefs around the country, we think she is in a position to represent the rich culinary culture of America in a way that speaks to the very nature of the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership."

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