Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

I saw a great ad on TV.

Television ads can be clever and make me laugh. They can bring a new product to my attention. They can touch a sentimental nerve and, in just 30 seconds, trigger something akin to emotion.

They often annoy me.

I can't, however, recall if one ever before attempted to sell me a product through insight into the human condition.

But that's what happened last week. An ad suggested that the world would be a better place if everyone simply learned one additional language and was able to converse with someone from a different background in that person's native tongue.

The profundity of the message's implications struck me before the advertiser revealed itself to be Rosetta Stone, the language program.

I turned to my wife and said, "If you're still wondering what to get me, I want Spanish."

The next day, a similar appreciation for the potential of a more connected, empathetic world struck me while having lunch with Relais & Chateaux's chairman, Philippe Gombert, and its North American president, Patrick O'Connell.

I always enjoy meeting (and eating) with R&C representatives. The organization's members are owners and operators of restaurants and independent properties that have a strong focus on fine dining. It's a marketing organization, but it's also a global club of professionals bound by a passion for food, wine and hospitality. They can discuss business intelligently, but they really light up when the topic turns to gastronomy and guest service.

Especially gastronomy. We met because Gombert and O'Connell wanted to give me a preview of a newly developed vision for their organization, and for the world.

In a sense, they were also encouraging people to learn another language. The document they put before me was written by the organization's World Culinary Council, made up of chefs, hoteliers, maitres d' and sommeliers. In its original French, it was called a "manifesto," but that was softened to "vision" for consumption by English speakers.

The document is R&C's attempt to connect people through a common tongue, to teach us how to eat in the same language.

To anyone who has paid attention to the evolving food scene over the past decade or so, there are really no surprises. The document supports local producers, responsible fishing, being hospitable, using seasonal products, treating staff well, working with communities, preserving artisan techniques, being environmentally conscious, maintaining diverse culinary heritages, linking cuisines with locales, enhancing well-being through nutrition, minimizing use of processed or modified foods, creating global alliances and educating people in support of these principles.

The real goal is contained within the 20th point: "Make the world a better place through cuisine and hospitality."

Yes, 20 points. It really is a manifesto. O'Connell confirmed: "We want to start a movement."

And like all good manifestos, it appears to be born of passion. It communicates with an earnestness that's more typical of small businesses than of large.

The best chefs get into their demanding profession because they want to share an individual vision and make the world a more inviting place. There is a strong brotherhood/sisterhood among the chefs I know personally. Gordon Ramsay aside, it's a calling that tends to attract people who enjoy making others comfortable and happy. The R&C "vision" is an attempt to codify this sensibility.

It shouldn't be hard. Last week, Travel Weekly held a Twitter chat on the topic of luxury travel. One of the first topics addressed was to define luxury. Some people proposed it was tied to staff remembering guest names or preferences or being pampered in spas or flying first class. I replied, "Hard to define, but I know it involves really, really good food."

If I'd had more than 140 characters to work with, I would have given an example that involves languages and food. In 1999, my wife and I went to the Michelin-starred restaurant Au Crocodile, in Strasbourg. It was way over our budget, but we hoped that they would let us just share an appetizer, then share an entree.

One of the appetizers that night was a whole, small truffle wrapped in puff pastry. My French was rusty, but I thought I had done a good job explaining that we wanted one truffle, but only one half for each of us.

The server returned with two whole truffles. Embarrassed, I tried to explain that perhaps I hadn't made myself clear. He looked puzzled, and returned with the proprietress. "You don't want them?" she said, concerned.

I explained that I had thought I had ordered one, to be cut into two. "We understood," she said. "But we thought you would really prefer to each have your own truffle. Don't worry about it."

When I say that luxury involves really good food, it's not just about enjoying the taste of truffles in puff pastry. Food is a luxury that often involves fellowship and warm feelings. Chef and diner are bound by a shared appreciation for both the preparation and enjoyment of a special meal.

My conversation with Relais & Chateaux's Gombert and O'Connell was ostensibly a business lunch. But ultimately it was more about the business of lunch.

We discussed European regulators' (misguided) proposal to reduce the number of varieties of commercially sold carrots from 500 to five.

We discussed the new chefs of China.

Milan's food-focused Expo next year.

I asked at one point if they would reach out with their "vision" to McDonald's.

"It's an excellent idea," O'Connell said.

"It shouldn't be difficult to open a dialogue," Gombert added.

But that dialogue might be the greatest test of whether a common language can lead to common ground among people of starkly different cultures.

If I can learn Spanish, I thought, the impact on the world will be slight. But if McDonald's can learn to speak Relais & Chateaux, the world will be much, much better off.


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