Matthew W. Barzun, ambassador of the United States of America to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Internet pioneer, and former ambassador to Sweden, wants to discuss something about which he has very strong feelings.
In his large, corner office at the embassy on Grosvenor Square in the heart of Mayfair, there’s a picture of President Obama, an American flag, a portrait of Winston Churchill—and an outsize poster of Johnny Cash. Barzun is making a name for himself as an engaging and remarkably informal diplomat, and today he’s found time to talk to me, a restaurant critic, about what he calls “food diplomacy.”
In a few hours, he would host “A Taste of the South” at his residence of Winfield House in Regent's Park, where guest chefs from the U.S. would present Southern dishes with authentic ingredients. Barzun says he has taken to using dining as a form of outreach in his role; going around to eat (especially street food) is one of his favorite family activities in London.
So what does he like? I’m half expecting Shake Shack and Five Guys, and he certainly does name-check those American chains. He says he’s got an app on his phone to find the best hamburgers wherever he travels in the U.K.—and he’s visited 38 towns and cities in the one and a half years since he took up his appointment.
But for a favorite restaurant, he also names Roti Chai, a casual and inexpensive Indian joint serving such street food as Railway Lamb Curry and Chicken Lollipops (Keralan spiced wings).
“It's just incredible,” he says. And his love of Indian food doesn’t stop there. It’s a cuisine he has enjoyed all his life, right from his childhood in Lincoln, Mass.
"I was asked to cook for the World Curry Festival in Bradford last year, so I went up and cooked my grandmother's curry recipe.
“Now, I know that the word curry is a broad category, but for us growing up, it was the thing my father cooked on Sunday nights for my mother, and the whole smell filled the house—that very particular smell, which I learned to love.
"My grandmother's no longer here, but my father sent me the recipe, and he learned to cook it from his mother,” Barzun says. “I learned that she had gotten the recipe from a British friend of hers in Boston.
"It's fun when you show up at these things because all the hard work—all the chopping of the onions and everything—happens before you get there. That doesn’t happen in real life for me, but on this particular moment up in Bradford, it did.
“My grandmother's recipe—and you'll see why this is not an authentic one—calls for dry vermouth. So I did flag that. Someone made the executive decision to substitute white grape juice, so the resulting concoction was slightly jammy and won't be repeated.
“I didn’t win the competition. In fact, I think they were too nice to say I lost it. I'm confident, having tasted the other amazing things at the World Curry Festival, that I cooked the least-good curry. But it was fun to be part of.”
“I am a sucker, unsurprisingly, for the special relationship,” Barzun says. “When I got over here, some British friends—and some American friends—said please don’t fall into the trap of saying 'special relationship.' It's a cliché. I couldn’t disagree more, with respect. It really is special.
“When you walk in [to the Beaumont], it is filled with pictures and drawings of the transatlantic relationship. That's a fun place to go and very American in its offerings. There's a great picture there of Ambassador John Winant, the finest, or certainly tied for first, among the greatest representatives my country has sent to this country. He was here in World War II—arrives in 1941, trying to get America to join the fight—and he does that, and there's a great portrait of him at Colony Grill.”
Barzun’s love of food has gotten him into trouble. He was, shall we say, lambasted after saying in an interview that he’d had his fill of being served lamb and potatoes since arriving in London.
“Ever since making those unguarded and distinctly undiplomatic remarks, I have been on the eating-lamb-and-humble-pie circuit, which has brought me far and wide across the U.K.,” he says, and points across the office to a “Lamb Lover” apron he has been sent.
That evening, on May 6, lamb wasn’t on the menu at Winfield House, where guests were served dishes such as Buttermilk-Fried Quail With Comeback Sauce; Fresh Sweet Corn; Jubilee Wood-Grilled Butt-Rub Gulf South Shrimp; and Florida Grapefruit Brulée.
It’s an informal affair at which guests were entertained by a 10-year-old prodigy, Lucy Gowen, playing blues on an electric guitar. Barzun, tieless and relaxed, shows off his own vinyl record collection, which, I notice, features my favorites, the Specials.
Signs of the special relationship extend beyond that British band. The food includes Key Lime Pie With Blueberries and Crème Charlotte, in honor of the new royal baby, Princess Charlotte.
Click here for Grandmother’s Curry Recipe.
(This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.