5 questions for the White House “sommelier”
FORTUNE — If you think hosting a dinner party is stressful, try having 250 people over on short notice. Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall has mastered that task. As Chief of Protocol for the United States, Marshall and her small, but powerful team, including State Department chefs Jason Larkin and Chris James, pick out every dish and beverage served to diplomats and politicians from around the world. Turns out, the food, the wine — and the brands — they select to stand out on the table are all an essential part of diplomacy.
What elements in a company or brand are you looking for to send the right message to your guests?
You know, the United States is the great melting pot, and what we want to do is showcase our uniqueness and the infusion of cultures around the world. For Vice President Xi’s dinner this February, we brought in Iron Horse vineyards and they created a special Chinese cuvee that was in honor of the Chinese New Year. That really went a long way with Vice President Xi. We also brought in Ming Tsai, who’s a Chinese American chef from the famous Blue Ginger restaurant (located in Wellesley, Massachusetts). He made an American meal, including roasted sweet potato soup and crispy duck confit, but with a fusion of the two cultures.
So, when Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden presented that to Vice President Xi, you could really see in his eyes that he was very honored by it. For our latest luncheon with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, we brought in April Bloomfield as a celebrity chef. April has a couple of fabulous restaurants, but The Spotted Pig in New York City is the one that most people have gone to. We also found out through a few little birds that it was Mrs. Cameron’s favorite restaurant in New York, so we were very excited when she agreed to come work with us.
Who picks out the wine?
Jason really has a fine technique for that. We all talk about this. We sit down, we have a meal, and we collaborate, but he’s the one who does a great deal of research. When we’re doing tastings, Jason will bring in 3 or 4 ideas of wines he thinks really could work for an event. He reaches out to find a particular vineyard and he’ll bring it back and ask us what we think about it.
During the Diplomatic Reception Rooms 50th anniversary celebration, we served the Royal Pippin, a cider, because it was so unique and so different. And we all had a tasting because we wanted to make sure people felt okay with that. This was a type of drink that was common at the time the rooms were established in the era of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. It just fit perfectly, and people really reacted to it well, event talking about it afterward.
How do you make sure people understand the significance of picking the companies to create the menu?
We make sure that we lay out some history of the elements of the meal. We want them to know about our celebrity chef, about the winery, about where the food comes from, we want people to walk away with an understanding of why we chose them and why that particular product was an important element of this meal. And maybe they’d want to use it at a special event of their choosing.
How do you find out about these products?
We focus on American companies because that’s what we want to showcase. But then there’s something unique in the link with the country that we are hosting — so maybe its wine maker or somebody significant in that company is of that country’s heritage. It’s a lot of research, but also, many people just come to us. They say ‘Hey, I heard you’re doing this. Let me tell you what I have and what I can offer.’ We’re always open and welcome to new ideas and looking at new people.
How do people contact you?
They call. We have an open line in our ceremonials office and through our general protocol office. And many times they’re from great vendors, not only for wines but also a variety of other companies. We’re always open to new ideas; I think that’s what we should be doing. What we should be doing here in this office is introducing to our foreign visitors, and to the diplomats that come to our country, the best of America. We want to invite that in so we can showcase these companies. That’s what we are trying to do.