WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton believes in the power of food. Over more than three years as America's top diplomat, she has increasingly used cuisine as a tool to bring people together.

Now Clinton is enlisting top-rated chefs from across the nation to join an effort to forge cultural exchanges over the dining table worldwide.

On Friday, more than 80 chefs are being inducted into the first American Chef Corps. These food experts could help the State Department prepare meals for visiting dignitaries, travel to U.S. embassies abroad for educational programs with foreign audiences or host culinary experts from around the world in their U.S. kitchens.

This month, chefs and food experts from 25 countries are visiting Washington, New York, San Francisco, the Midwest and New Orleans to learn about U.S. food culture in a State Department program.

The new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership is part of Clinton's "smart power" philosophy of using "every diplomatic tool at our disposal," said U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall, in a written response to questions from The Associated Press.

Clinton's focus on the role of food in person-to-person diplomacy began when she was first lady and Marshall served as White House social secretary.

Gone is a heavy reliance on French fare or catering menus to serve special guests.

At a February luncheon for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, Marshall called on Chinese-American chef Ming Tsai, who owns the Wellesley, Mass., restaurant Blue Ginger. He created a special menu fusing Chinese and American cultures that included an "eight treasured rice packet" with a variety of flavors and gingered Swiss chard.

To feed British Prime Minister David Cameron in March, diplomats chose Chef April Bloomfield, owner of New York's Spotted Pig, who was born in Britain. The menu included slow-cooked Atlantic salmon, herbed lentils, roasted fennel, cauliflower and petite carrots.

"By showcasing the best of American cuisine and creativity, we can show our guests a bit about ourselves," Marshall said. "Likewise, by incorporating elements of our visitor's culture, we can demonstrate respect and a desire to connect and engage."

The State Department also offers snacks or tea to jet-lagged guests with a flavor from their homes to make them comfortable.

Chefs who have prepared a diplomatic meal or special program are being anointed State Chefs, a distinction that comes with a navy jacket with the American flag and their names embroidered in gold. The roster includes Ming, Bloomfield and famed Washington-area chef Jose Andres, who cooked for the 50th anniversary of the department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

Food can send a message, Andres said, so he served dignitaries Louisiana Gulf shrimp to send a signal of support to fishermen struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. He said showcasing the nation's diverse offerings also shows that America "is more than just hot dogs and burgers."

Other big names being enlisted include Bryan Voltaggio, a Maryland chef and runner up on TV's "Top Chef" who prepared dinner for Japan's prime minister, and Rick Bayless of Chicago who cooked President Barack Obama's second state dinner for the Mexican president.

Washington Chef Mike Isabella, who gained fame on TV's "Top Chef," is the first new State Chef to formally represent America's food culture abroad. He's visiting Greece and Turkey on a trip he planned to research flavors for an upcoming restaurant.

For Clinton, he added visits to embassies and restaurants as a culinary ambassador. Isabella has met chefs in Greece and Turkey who want to know more about U.S. advances in moving food from farm to table and building stronger businesses.

"I just think food is the best way to bring people together," he said. "Even if we don't understand what we're saying across the table from each other, we understand how happy we are when we're sitting down together."

UPDATE: This initiative is in partnership with the James Beard Foundation. Here's a video from Hillary Clinton about the new program:

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