* Elite chefs to world leaders hold annual gathering in Paris

* Chefs trade secrets on dishes to serve the world's top tables

* Merkel loves French food, Hollande hates artichokes

By Vicky Buffery

PARIS, July 24 (Reuters) -- A handful of people in the world know that German Chancellor Angela Merkel loves popping over to Paris because of her penchant for French cuisine, while it's best to avoid serving artichokes to French President Francois Hollande.

They are the top chefs from the kitchens of the world's leaders, masters of the art of sweetening international relations with a sumptuous meal, who gather in Paris this week to swap recipes and tips on dinner-party diplomacy.

If Winston Churchill was right when he said a century ago that "the stomach governs the world", then this club of 27 culinary maestros have an unseen influence on leaders' moods as they seal decisions on everything from the crisis in Syria to the euro zone's debt woes.

"Presidents come and go, but chefs stay," said Gilles Bragard, the French businessman who started the club of chefs to the world's presidents and monarchs in 1977.

"I often say that if politics divides, then the table brings people together," he told a news conference in Paris at their latest annual get-together.

In a wink at the cooks' importance, the club's name -- "Le Club des Chefs des Chefs" -- plays on the fact the French word for chef and leader is the same. It could translate as "The Club of Chefs of the Chiefs" or "The Club of Chiefs of the Chiefs".

"I think what I cook can really make a difference to how discussions happen," Daryl Schembeck, head chef from the kitchens of the United Nations who recently cooked for a party of 200 world leaders, told Reuters.

"If it's easy to eat and people are enjoying it, it's something they can talk about and that can start another conversation. I think I can impact that," he said.

Attending the gathering from the White House kitchen is Cristeta Comerford, chef to Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barack Obama. From Paris comes veteran Bernard Vaussion, chef to French leaders for nearly 40 years.

The chefs, from as far afield as China, Sri Lanka and Israel, met in Berlin last week as part of a week-long annual get-together. They arrived in Paris on Monday for a three-day tour of the French capital, to sample ingredients and share recipes.


FROM NAPOLEON TO THATCHER

Chefs throughout history have played a vital, behind-the-scenes role in diplomacy, helping to ease fraught relations and smooth the way for talks.

As Bragard recounts, the great French strategist Talleyrand, credited with the rise of the diplomatic banquet, once told Napoleon Bonaparte: "Give me a good chef and I shall give you good treaties."

Keen to smooth tensions over the euro zone crisis when Hollande and Merkel met this month to mark 50 years of Franco-German reconciliation, French chefs chose to reproduce the famous meal of filet of beef and raspberry macarons prepared in 1962 for post-war leaders Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer when they signed their friendship treaty.

On the day of Hollande's inauguration in mid-May, Merkel treated him to a feast of veal schnitzel and asparagus in Berlin, washed down with a fine red French wine.

The chefs, some of the few people who have daily access to the world's power-brokers, have the utmost trust of their employers.

Only the Kremlin still has an official taster on hand to sample the Russian president's food and make sure it hasn't been tampered with. Other world leaders put their stomachs entirely in the hands of their cooks.

The chefs are firmly discreet regarding any secrets they pick up from the world of diplomacy -- though they spill the beans more freely on former leaders, relating anecdotes that can give insight into presidents' and prime ministers' characters.

London-based Anton Mosimann, a visiting chef to 10 Downing Street who has cooked for a string of British prime ministers, recounts how Margaret Thatcher once asked for a lavish meal to entertain the then French President Francois Mitterrand.

He complied with a copious dish of veal steak with delicate morille mushrooms. During a conversation several years later, the famously frugal Thatcher congratulated him on the meal but added with a frown: "It was very expensive."

"That was Mrs. Thatcher, she never missed a thing," Mosimann said.

A current taboo at French diplomatic meals for American guests is foie gras, recently banned in California due to the force-feeding of geese used to produce it, even if White House chef Comerford said she had no qualms about serving up American-produced goose liver.

"Our aim, of course, is always to avoid shocking our guests," Elysee chef Vaussion told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Johnny Cotton; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Pravin Char)