When I teach my corporate classes on doing business abroad, one of the most common questions I get is “What are safe topics of conversation in my target country?” People want to bond with their colleagues abroad but they fear offending.
“Food” I tell them. Food is one of the few universal ties between cultures and after last night’s dinner I can understand why. After a week of training, meetings and exciting new ventures I was ready to celebrate. I had made it through some difficult challenges and wanted to toast to good health with my husband. After a bit of hemming and a fair share of hawing we settled on Sugo, a local Roswell restaurant with a blend of Italian and Greek cuisines (online here). We had eaten there for our wedding anniversary and I remembered it as extraordinary. I remembered right.
From the moment we walked in we felt the night light up like a diamond. The manager, a woman in a sharp business suit, flashed us a smile so genuine that I was caught off guard. I told her we had no reservations.
“No matter,” she said. “We’re excited to see you!” And I could tell she really was.
We were seated at a long table next to other couples and introduced to our server, Christine. Tiny white lights sparkled everywhere around us and Frank Sinatra poured through the speakers forming an atmosphere that swayed me into a delicious haze. The rest of the night was exactly what I had wished for – a celebration. We started with a watermelon martini, fresh squeezed to order and fabulously pink against the glass. As I don’t drink but a few times a year I sipped it slowly to avoid the room spinning around me.
In the spirit of a feast of adventure we elected to go with tapas instead of an entree. We looked to the couple next to us to see what they had ordered and started up a conversation. The whole place felt alive and filled with delights for every one of the senses. After a short time a waiter came to our table and placed in front of us a salad that looked as if it had come directly from a garden out back. Thick heirloom tomatoes covered with fresh basil, creamy mozzarella, figs, and balsamic vinaigrette began our banquet with a bang. We savored every bite until the next course came, dates wrapped in bacon topped with piquant peppers and cheese. I could hardly believe what I was tasting! The combination of flavors was beyond my capacity for description, so Jay and I just looked at each other and uttered whatever sounds we could muster.
Next came crunchy potatoes with dipping sauce, followed by sausage and carmelized onions, and roasted asparagus dusted with Italian breadcrumbs. Each dish burst with unique oils, spices, and obvious care. We ate, then rested, then ate again. Conversation flowed and we chatted with the people around us. Food was not just food last night; it was a bonding experience and a marker of the milestones of the week.
The next time you want to build a better relationship with your partner in China or your customer in Kenya, try some of their local food, then have a nice long conversation about it. You’ll find yourself toasting your next successful deal in no time!