What do you do when you’re having lunch with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and a giant platter of durian fruit—often described as smelling of rotting onions and turpentine—is brought out? Eat it, of course.
Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, was behind Anthony Bourdain’s low-key meal of bún chả with then-President Barack Obama at Bún Chả Hương Liên, a small restaurant in Hanoi.
I spoke to Rhodes shortly before Obama left office about how the president and his team have handled “food diplomacy”; from durian to bún chả to green tea ice cream.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Courtney Brooks: Let’s start with the backstory to Anthony Bourdain and President Obama’s meeting.
Ben Rhodes: Well, I had been a long-time admirer of both “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” and we’ve increasingly tried to find more interesting and creative platforms for the president to speak to different aspects of his approach to the job. And, one of the important aspects of how he looks at foreign policy is doing things that both raise understanding of foreign cultures in the United States, but also, that show respect and a connection with the cultures of countries that we’re visiting. And so, it struck me that an interview with Anthony Bourdain would be a natural fit for one of the president’s foreign trips. So, I reached out to the “Parts Unknown” production company, Zero Point Zero, and gave some options for travel that the president was doing in 2016, and they communicated back that Vietnam would be the country that they’d be interested in doing an interview in. After that, our advance team was in touch with the producers and worked with them to find a location where they could do the interview that was authentic and in keeping with the spirit of the show. And, in order to do that, we had to treat the interview as what we call an “off the record” stop. So, a stop that we do not announce in advance. If we announce a stop in advance, you have to essentially clear it out and put in place security perimeters. Whereas if you do it in an “off the record” capacity, we’re able to essentially surprise people and certainly survey the site and understand where the president’s gonna go, but not have to remove people who are eating and enjoying their night.
Brooks: Everyone who was there was organically there?
Rhodes: They didn’t know until shortly before that it was the president who was coming. My understanding is that they knew something was up, and they had to because there were going to be people floating around and Anthony Bourdain was going to be there. But, it wasn’t until relatively soon before the president arrived that they knew it was definitely the president. And, so that’s how you had people who were just there eating their dinner. That’s my understanding.
Brooks: How was the location, and the meal—bún chả—chosen?
Rhodes: I think that was entirely up to Bourdain. They communicated the stop that they would like to go to, and then the Secret Service and our advance team both went to look at it discreetly, and made a plan for how the motorcade would arrive, and we went in a much smaller footprint than we would normally. It came from Bourdain and then we just made it work.
Brooks: Bourdain said that after they met, and the news was obviously all over Hanoi and all over Vietnam, people were running up to him in the street crying and saying they couldn’t believe that President Obama ate bún chả instead of going to a fancy fusion restaurant, for example. I imagine that when President Obama’s on the road, he’s obviously meeting a lot of people, and what he’s eating and where he’s inviting them communicates different things to different people. So, if you’re in Vietnam and he’s eating a $3 bowl of noodles, what’s the message that’s being sent?
Rhodes: Well, this is a president who tries to make a connection with ordinary people in other countries, and we’ve consistently found that the most effective way to do that is to do something that is recognizable to them. Oftentimes they don’t assume that the president of the United States will do something like that. And actually, in part, it’s because very few political leaders anywhere do that. So, some of them are not even accustomed to seeing their own leaders do that. And, we tried to make that a part of his travel through food and other things. Even when we went to Laos recently, we similarly walked down a street in Luang Prabang and the president got a traditional Laotian drink from a street vendor and that was all anybody could talk about in Laos the next day. In Vietnam, he gave multiple speeches in town halls and the thing we kept hearing most about is him eating this bowl of noodles.
Another good example is, we went to Japan in 2010 and the president had given an interview where he had spoken about how, when he was a child and went to Japan, he ate green tea ice cream and liked it. And so, the Japanese suggested that he get some green tea ice cream, and he did. And, for years after that, we’d have Japanese people come up to us and say, “I can’t believe the president knows about green tea ice cream. He ate green tea ice cream.” And that’s the thing that they knew about the president.
So, I think it means a lot to people that someone in office as powerful as the president of the United States cares enough about other cultures that he wants to experience things that matter to them. And again, in ways that are recognizable to them. Sometimes that’s food and sometimes that’s other things. So, he went to a favela in Rio de Janeiro, which I don’t think any American president would have done before, and he went to the “City of God” favela and he kicked a soccer ball with some kids for a while. And, that had a similar effect. They’re seeing a U.S. president, and also this U.S. president who represents a lot of things to people around the world, in terms of being a minority and coming from a more disadvantaged background doing things that they can see themselves.
Brooks: On the flip side of that, it seems like almost everything he eats makes national, international news. I am thinking specifically of the New York Times article quoting the Obamas’ chef as saying the president eats exactly seven almonds each night, which of course then Obama clarified as actually a joke between the chef, Sam Kass, and Michelle Obama. But the only culinary cultural faux pas by President Obama I have seen was a couple of articles about the president chewing gum in China and India, and some people being not too happy about it. What’s your strategy to try to help President Obama avoid doing anything that might be seen as culturally insensitive? And do you have any other tales of missteps you could share?
Rhodes: Well, the gum has been a consistent one, and that’s simply because Nicorette is the way in which he managed to quit smoking. And so, at times yes, you run into cultures where gum chewing is less common and it’s even seen as disrespectful, and that’s certainly not the intent. One of the challenges on food is, countries are so proud of their food that sometimes at these banquets, they have these 10-course meals. And the president is not the biggest eater in the world. He’s very fit and exercise-conscious, and there are times actually when he’s not eating everything, not because he doesn’t like it or want it, but just because he can’t eat a 10-course meal. And so he’s developed, I think, a good diplomatic habit of eating just a little bit of everything so that there are not whole courses that he’s ignoring.
The reverse example is, and this is less on food, but that there are things that he, because he wants to be respectful of other cultures, he ends up doing that open him up to criticism back home. So, when he was in Argentina he gets invited to dance the tango with these dancers. In Argentina, that was a huge hit and people felt very proud that the president did their national dance and they thought it was great. Back here, people thought the optics were bad, and he shouldn’t be doing this at a time when there had recently been a terrorist attack in Brussels. There’s this kind of strange disconnect between things that are seen as signs of respect and outreach and are very effective in other countries, but a U.S. press that is constantly hyperfocused on optics and doesn’t, frankly, care much about whether or not it is effective in that country. They just care whether or not the president made a gaffe by doing something that can be made fun of on cable television.
Oftentimes, actually, our biggest challenge is simply that we have a kind of cynical media and political environment that does not always share our interest in outreach in another country. The one thing I’d say on food is, in Malaysia—because the president knows Southeast Asia very well—there’s a Malaysian dessert, a fruit, called durian. It’s a very sticky fruit that has a very strong smell. And the president mentioned in the course of a luncheon that he had this dessert. And, so then they all got very excited and they brought it out at the end. It’s the most disgusting thing that I’ve ever tasted in my life. And, it’s actually famous for being embraced in Malaysia, but it’s very inaccessible. And so, we all had to put on the bravest possible face in eating this thing. So, that’s maybe the one time that the president’s comment put us all on the hook for eating something that I never want to eat again.
Brooks: Was that at a high-level meeting?
Rhodes: It was a lunch with the prime minister of Malaysia and his delegation. So, it was probably about 20 people, 10 on each side.
Brooks: Did the president actually like durian? Or did he just mention it and then it arrived?
Rhodes: No, he had eaten it as a child. And so, he was referencing it as something he had remembered having, and then they got so excited by that that they surprised us by bringing it out at the end of the meal. And so, then we all politely had to try it. And, he did insist, the president did, that everybody try it. He said, ‘You have to try it once in your life.’ And, I have to say, I like most things, but I won’t have another one of those.
Brooks: That’s a great story. And, did the president eat the whole serving of durian that he was given? Or was it the polite couple bites?
Rhodes: It was the polite couple bites.
Brooks: I’ve read that the president has some food preferences, that he doesn’t drink much coffee, if any coffee. How do you handle that? Does he just skip it, or does he order a cup of coffee and just let it sit there? Or take one sip?
Rhodes: The main, the diplomatic way in which we approach those types of things is to take one sip. Another example is the Chinese have a very strong cocktail that they like and President Xi Jinping likes, and the president was already tired and basically had the view that, “If I drink one of these, I’m gonna go to bed.” So, he has one sip.
Brooks: How is security around food handled? Is there a food tester, and is that different nationally or internationally?
Rhodes: I think it’s basically the same, and when you go to a restaurant or something you’re obviously giving up some degree of control on how the president’s food is prepared. So, when you travel, a lot of his food that is not out at official functions or restaurants is prepared by the same people who prepare his food here in the United States. They do have ways of making sure that the food is safe. That can vary, and they do it in different ways, and it’s not always necessarily that they’re eating the exact thing that he’s about to eat. The Secret Service does build into their review of a place that the president’s gonna go eat in some capacity to make sure that the food is safe for him.
Brooks: Final question for you. What did the president think of the meeting with Bourdain, the restaurant, and the bún chả?
Rhodes: He loved it. He really liked the food a lot and he said that it reminded him of food in Indonesia when he was growing up. He has a palate and an understanding of Southeast Asian food. In terms of the conversation, I think he was interested in how wide-ranging it was, and I think one of the things he appreciated was that they talked about the fact that it’s good for Americans to learn more about other places. As you were saying, part of going to that restaurant is that it’s good public diplomacy in Vietnam, but hopefully, it also shows the American people something about Vietnam, and they know more about it. And what he liked about the conversation and what Anthony Bourdain does is that it’s educating—not just through food, but also through other things—it’s educating the American people about other places. Which is very in line with the president’s identity as someone who’s lived in other places and has family in other places. And also in line with, frankly, a world in which it’s just a good thing to know about other people and cultures.
And again, like a lot of people who were first acquainted with Anthony Bourdain through the prism of “Kitchen Confidential,” I think President Obama had been familiar with his work, but was struck by how broad his curiosity was beyond food. That this isn’t just about cooking and eating. It’s about culture and politics. We actually had a conversation, the president and I, about the fact that there’s an implicit worldview that comes out of Anthony Bourdain’s show. Which is that if people everywhere could just understand one another a little bit better, sit down over a meal together, you could solve a lot of problems. And, that’s actually quite similar to the president’s worldview. That ordinary people in different parts of the world have more in common than the depiction of our differences over politics or religion or other things. And that, this general worldview, that if people understood one another’s cultures, engaged one another with respect, and could sit down together over a bowl of noodles, people would find that they have a lot more in common than they might think.