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Published: Tuesday, 9/18/2012

Icing on the cake

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

WASHINGTON -- Reporters tend to meet more celebrities than most people, and I have met more celebrities than most reporters. It comes with the job, and the professional way to interview celebrities is to realize they are just like everyone else, only famous.

The more blasé, the better.

So there I was, on the eighth floor of the U.S. State Department, which is sort of a celebrity in itself. Possibly the best ever view of Washington, which has a lot of great views. Several hundred others and I were there recently in a reception hall absolutely stuffed full of great chefs.

Everywhere you looked there was a famous chef. Bryan Voltaggio in one corner. Duff Goldman, the Ace of Cakes, in another. Rick Bayless standing in the back. Jose Andres somewhere in the midst of everything. I squeezed past a guy and it was Walter Scheib, former executive chef at the White House.

Blasé. Blasé. Not a problem. I've chatted with Oprah, joked with Tom Cruise, sung the chorus of "Afternoon Delight" with Dave Barry. I can handle chefs.

And then, suddenly, there she was. My first, last, and only food crush: Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of highly praised restaurants, co-writer of one of my favorite cookbooks, and, as one of the Too Hot Tamales, the first person I ever saw on the Food Network. I also think she's kind of cute.

But I'm a professional, and so is she. Unlike most of the other famous chefs there, she was actually working, serving samples of her Heirloom Bean and Bacon Tostadas. I accepted one, talked momentarily with her about the bacon, and disappeared into the crowd. Completely blasé. I barely drooled at all.

The tostada, incidentally, was outstanding. It was everything I had expected it to be, everything I had hoped it would be, and more. The recipe is on Page 6.

My wife was at the reception too, and although she has also met her share of celebrities she took the opportunity to talk at greater length with Ms. Milliken. She told her how much she loved the cookbook and all of its recipes, how much she'd enjoyed seeing her on television, and how sorry she was that she was no longer on TV. Ms. Milliken thanked her graciously, and squeezed her arm.

If I knew an arm squeeze was part of the deal, I would have talked to her longer, too.

The event was actually important. It was the launch of the State Department's new Diplomatic Culinary Partnership. The idea is to have famous and accomplished chefs help with diplomacy by preparing food at official functions at home and abroad. If foreign leaders are fed a fabulous meal by a chef they have heard of, or are given a meal that has obviously been prepared with more skill and attention than usual, it may make the difficult work of diplomacy proceed with more ease.

Meanwhile, some of the chefs will occasionally be working as chef ambassadors to other countries, introducing American culture through cuisine and using food as a common language to bring diverse peoples together.

If the food at the reception is any indication, everyone will be so happy with the food they have eaten that the entire world will soon get along. The first few tables were piled high with cured meats and robustly flavored American cheeses served with slices of bread from the Sullivan Street Bakery, the folks who invented no-knead bread.

Inside the larger room were delightful little crabcakes made by Amanda Freitag, a roasted farro salad with smoked swordfish by Art Smith, and irresistibly tiny tuna hamburgers by caterer Peter Callahan, who began the fad of making miniature hors d'oeuvres.

Mr. Goldman showed up with an enormous cake in the shape of an apple but decorated like a globe. But he didn't serve it; instead he served a spectacular yellow cake with chocolate chips and a butter cream frosting that, in my opinion, had too much butter.

Even celebrity bakers are sometimes just like everyone else.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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