When CNN’s Elise Labott isn’t looking for a fresh story angle, she’s on the hunt for fresh local cuisine.
She has downed Bellinis with Hillary Clinton at Harry’s Bar in Rome and eaten Cambodian food with John Kerry on the rooftop of Phnom Penh’s legendary Foreign Correspondents Club, all while traveling to more than 85 countries and covering six dierent U.S. secretaries of state. It’s fair to say that over the years, CNN global aairs correspondent Elise Labott has had an enviable seat at the table to world history, Michelin-star restaurants and local street food. I caught up with her recently to nd out more how this globe-trekking foodie eats on the road.
CAPITOL FILE: Let’s start with the overthe- top dishes—go ahead, make us jealous.
ELISE LABOTT: Some of my more memorable meals were almost fairy-talelike, such as a lunch with then-British foreign minister Jack Straw at an English castle and dinner at a museum in Red Square arranged by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov for then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s entire party. We were served whole eels and lavish amounts of caviar.
CF: OK, now, what’s it really like?
EL: Most of the trips amount to one long motorcade ride from airport to government building to hotel and repeat. Meals are generally an afterthought with two givens—heavy carbloaded meals t for a soldier on U.S. government planes and a large breakfast buet which we all load up on because we don’t know when we’ll get our next meal.
CF: Not exactly a fairy tale.
CF: So dinner in the hotel most nights?
EL: Yes, but sometimes the hotel restaurants are closed when we return after a long day, at which point we are reduced to room service in a press filing room. A club sandwich and the Armenian mezze platter at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem have gotten us through countless Mideast peace negotiations.
CF: But you do get a chance to escape the hotel?
EL: If we are lucky and time allows, the press corps will break out of the bubble of the U.S. delegation and steal away for a meal. Not only is it a time to decompress and digest the events of the day, but it is often the only local avor we get.
CF: How do you choose where to go?
EL: We always ask the local embassy sta to recommend a favorite haunt that might oer a glimpse into the soul of a city—like the small restaurant down an alley in Marrakech’s old city of Djemaa el Fna, where we were served dish after dish of mouthwatering food with the warm and attentive service Moroccans are rightly famous for.
CF: Do you think that inuences your storytelling?
EL: As journalists covering international issues we are fascinated by the diversity of the world—its people, cultures and traditions. Each of those things are deeply rooted in food. It’s not just the ingredients or how the food is prepared, the way in which people share a meal is a direct reection of their identity. We’ve been known to ingratiate ourselves with a chef and linger past closing to hear their stories. Although we usually get interrupted and called back to the hotel for breaking news and more sandwiches.
The Moroccan tajine dishes Labott enjoyed are slow-cooked savory stews, made with sliced meat, poultry or fish with vegetables or fruit.
CF: I imagine that hospitality provides a great window into a culture too.
EL: It often lingers longer than the food. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai treated the press to parallel feasts at his palace while we waited for his meetings to end—piping hot trays of local dishes, rice and bread served by gracious Afghans eager to share their rich food and cultural traditions. Recently, on a trip to Africa with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, a group of women in a camp for displaced Congolese were eager to show us their small bakery. The sweet smell of fried dough filled their small hut as they told us why they started the business—they couldn’t leave the camp to buy bread for fear of being raped or killed. The small money they made from the bakery was stretched to feed several families of a dozen or more.
CF: Did you try some?
EL: Yes! It was good. As we walked away, one of the women handed us a bag of hot rolls and enthusiastically exclaimed, “You must try one of the beignets.”
CF: That’s very international.
EL: Indeed. The more I travel, the more I see how important food is as a bridge between peoples and cultures.
CF: Just not in the press room.
EL: Not so much.