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What It's Like to Cook for Some of the World's Most Powerful People

I've cooked for Ban-Ki Moon, the Queen of Norway, and Kofi Annan. During my time working as a chef for royalty and high-ranking politicians, I've seen a lot of crap.
Photo via Flickr user rockandrollfreak

After finishing his culinary education, Canadian chef Stewart Wadden soon found himself in the political realm: working as the chef for the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, as well as other foreign royalty and high-ranking politicians, including Ban-Ki Moon and the Queen of Norway. Having served as the invisible hand to diplomacy (imagine trying to argue sanely about nukes or terrorism over an empty stomach), Wadden spoke with MUNCHIES inside his upcoming Jackson Heights restaurant Swim Two Birds about his time in some of the most politically important kitchens.

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In 1998, I was in a restaurant called Domas in Ottawa and the Canadian ambassador came in. I ended up talking to them and then did a little test dinner—I think a leg of lamb—for them at their cottage. They said me, "Canada is doing a campaign for its bid for the Security Counsel seat. So do you want to come and cook in New York?" They asked me on August 28 and I moved to New York on the 30th. From September to December, we entertained from 200 to 600 people from, like, 186 countries for dinner.

For the Canadian ambassador, I cooked for functions and dinners. That could be 18 ambassadors, it could be heads of state—I cooked for the G8 during that year. I've done receptions at the UN Itself for 600 to 700 hundred people.

I've seen a lot of crap.

At [The JW Marriott] Essex House, the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan were hosting a fundraiser for UNICEF, so I organized that with the chefs at Essex House. We did $25,000 a table for 400 people. It was all with donated ingredients from different countries, too. Canada donated all the beef, so all the beef came from Alberta. Iceland brought some tiny little fish filets, like this [gestures about size of a pinky finger] and I'm like, "What am I gonna do with those?" We didn't know until two days before what we had to cook with, so it was a bit of a shitshow. But we had fun, and they ended up having a good meal and raising a lot of money for UNICEF.

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Stewart Wadden plating yellowfin tuna

Sometimes I'd work from 8 in the morning to midnight, go to bed, and do it again. Well, maybe, at 3 in the morning you'd have to get up and get ready. It depends on what your schedule is the day before.

I've seen a lot of crap. Different countries have different reputations with their drinking cultures. You have to be so careful you don't disclose things you shouldn't, because the minute you do that you've embarrassed your client and you've jeopardized your job for sure. These people are in spotlight all the time, and they have private lives.

But I can tell you about the Irish. They have a tradition of having a cocktail and reading poetry and being crazy and a lot of fun. There was this one Irish dinner where everybody had to come and read a poem or something. All the guests were ambassadors; the Irish ambassador hosted the dinner. Then they all would go out and sit and have a drink and cigar and read something that they thought was interesting. Those would go on forever and we'd be there until 2 in the morning going, "Please, Jesus, make them all go home." Of course everybody would be plastered at the end of it.

You feel good when your ambassador comes and says, "Kofi Annan ate everything on his plate today."

There are the boring things, like this one ambassador who didn't talk to me for seven years. For me to spend as much time as I did in the kitchen and he didn't have the courtesy to come down … I don't know if it's a culture thing or if he was just a dick. There's a lot of self-entitlement going on in the diplomatic world.

But [Ban-Ki Moon and the Queen of Norway], they're appreciative guests. And Ban-Ki Moon eats a lot of food. He eats all over the world! So it's nice to have him as a fan. Kofi Annan didn't eat many people's cookings— he'd go to functions and move his food around his plate. But when I fed him, he always ate all my food. And you feel good when your ambassador comes and says, "Kofi Annan ate everything on his plate today."

People will really order dinner like they're going to a restaurant. As your first [job], and as a young person with a tiny bit of an ego, you kind of think, "Well, you better eat my food." But it's really not about you; it's about the host and making the guests remember something. These are countries that are trying to deal with one another. And if you can make someone comfortable over a meal and they can like one another more, or break some ice, or do something—they do it over a meal for a reason. It's not just because we all have to eat.

I think food breaks down barriers.

As told to Matthew Sedacca