The Embassy Chef Challenge is an annual benefit supporting the free programs and events provided by Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Washington DC’s art, culture and heritage. This is a unique advantage of living in the Washington DC area – a chance to try a diverse selection of cuisines as interpreted by Embassy chefs from around the globe.
The Challenge is a compressed, indoor version of the two events that Cultural Tourism DC is best known for: the Embassy Open Houses held each spring, when many international embassies have thousands of people coming through their premises for a taste of culture. Fifteen Embassy chefs took part in vying for People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice Awards. There was also an auction with items offering culinary and travel adventures.
I got to the Ronald Reagan Building a little early. There were some arty picture opportunities from the balconies surrounding the floor.
There was a small reception for the judges, organizers, and VIPs, with some very creative serving arrangements. At first I thought these spheres were little terrariums, but they turned out to be a unique delivery system for mussel salad provided by Belga Cafe. Participatory gustation: we were instructed to shake first, then consume.
The main event took place in the soaring atrium space of the RR Building. It started filling up with hungry and thirsty folks. There was a welcoming ceremony, in which the organizers thanked the participants, sponsors and embassy staff for their contributions to the cause of Cultural Tourism DC. Capricia Marshall, the honorary chair, spoke winsomely, as did Timothy Cox, Chair of the Board of Directors.
And then, the actual Mayor of Washington, DC appeared! He proved very popular.
Then we were free to taste. I started to methodically work my way around the room, determined to appreciate each country’s offerings. They ranged widely in the degree of detail applied to each station; some were simple and food-focused, others more elaborate. Of course, the latter made better photo ops.
Uzbekistan not only had very tasty food, but carved fruit as the highlight of an eye-catching display.
Trinidad and Tobago seemed to have modified a parade float for their display. They served marinated crab atop a giant Styrofoam replica of the same, with parade costumes on manikins and a colorful backdrop. And it was here that I learned that many of these plates were being served by the actual ambassadors themselves.
The Thai Embassy was distinguished by the wonderful matching silk dresses worn by the staff, and the Ambassador’s wife. And, as it turned out, by the food as well. They won the Judge’s Choice award with their Spicy Salmon Salad – “Phla Salmon.”
The Norwegian chef displayed his patriotism by his splendid pants.
But no one could best Poland for costume. Their servers were beautifully turned out in native garb, the men as well as the women. The food was artfully presented, as well. They had two dishes, smoked trout and a cheese terrine, as well as Polish beer.
The dish that captured the People’s Choice Award was served by the Russian Federation – Salmon Ice Cream with Black Caviar Sauce. Chef Roman Shchadrin found the recipe in an old book of dishes served at the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg. He was churning it on site.
And way down at the end, Botswana had a sleeper hit with Pulled Goat Meat. They had a simple display, but the food was delicious.
Towards the end of the sampling time, I noticed some food swapping going on among countries. Poland and El Salvador improved International relations while posing for a picture.
And then it was time to announce the winners of the competition. The judges were introduced.
The Judge’s Choice winner was Chef Jiraporn Bunlert of the Royal Thai Embassy. The People’s Choice award was given to Chef Roman for that amazing salmon ice cream. The winning chefs posed with the ambassadors.
All the chefs were assembled for a group picture with the judges.
The crowd of serious foodies and schmoozies (I just made that one up) was delighted. So was I.