5th Annual Embassy Chef Challenge: A Look at Culture Through Food

Punch Palate Correspondent Megan McGrath

One of my favorite things about living around DC, is the way all of the diverse cultures come together on a plate.  We’re fortunate to live in a place where we can all find the food we grew up with from within our fair city, or around the Beltway.  It’s like having a passport to another country one meal at a time!  That’s why I was so excited to attend the 5th Annual Embassy Chef Challenge, created by Cultural Tourism DC http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/.  This prized nonprofit’s mission is to promote culture throughout all of our neighborhoods, and to celebrate our city’s heritage through art and food.

Views of the room

Views of the room

The event is designed for chefs from eight countries to highlight their food and cuisine through small bites.  These accomplished chefs generally work for ambassadors and heads of state, and for one night came out to mingle with the locals.  The competition was fierce, and started weeks ago with the Challenge Hungary.  Chefs were brought to the Occasions Catering kitchen to compete in Challenge Hungary, where last year’s winner, Chef Viktor Merényi, prepared a basket of mystery ingredients for the chefs to use in a two-hour challenge.  The chefs were scored, and their score was incorporated into their overall total after the final culinary challenge the night of the gala.

Here’s a look at the dishes around the room, and around the globe!

The Embassy of Korea and Chef Kwang Kenneth Yang’s Pan-Fried Dangun Legend Rolls with Rice Balls.  The table for Korea featured their offering, as well as, a look at a typical tea treat and standard meal fare.

Chef Kwang Kenneth Yang

Chef Kwang Kenneth Yang

Pan-fried Dangun Legend Roll with Rice Balls

Pan-fried Dangun Legend Roll with Rice Balls

The Embassy of Jamaica and Chef Sherene James’ Tropical Jerk Chicken Kabob.  This booth was as brightly decorated as you would imagine, and the kabob had a tangy flavor with a subtle bit of  heat on the finish.

Tropical Jerk Chicken Kabob

Tropical Jerk Chicken Kabob

The Embassy of El Salvador and Chef Ismar Reyes’ Sea Bass, Mango, and Coconut Ceviche.  This table was mobbed, and Chef Ismar Reyes was warm and welcoming to all of the event patrons.  He produced a delicate and light ceviche which was in my top two dishes of the night. 

Chef Ismar Reyes (left) and sous chef

Chef Ismar Reyes (left) and sous chef

Sea Bass, Mango and Fresh Coconut Ceviche

Sea Bass, Mango and Fresh Coconut Ceviche

The Embassy of South Africa and Chef Zodwa Sikakane’s Chakalaka.  A satisfying and traditional dish was offered by the South African Chef.

Dish from South Africa

Dish from South Africa

The Embassy of New Zealand and Chef Nathan Bates’ Lamb Cutlet with Zespri Kiwifruit, Herb, and Manuka Honey Relish.  This dish was my favorite of the evening.  The lamb was very tender, and well-seasoned.  The kiwi relish provided a nice amount of sweetness, and was a playful nod to the country’s informal nickname for residents.  The whole venue was buzzing about this dish and the line was incredible.  Simple and a perfect bite.

New Zealand Lamb Cutlet with Zespri Kiwi Fruit, Herb, and Manuka Honey Relish

New Zealand Lamb Cutlet with Zespri Kiwi Fruit, Herb, and Manuka Honey Relish

The Embassy of Russia and Chef Roman Shchadrin’s Duck Julien in Tartlets.  This booth was homey and provided guests with a creamy comforting dish, and a shooter of vodka.  Enough to warm you up on a cold night!

Russia's Embassy

Russia’s Embassy

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As you might expect, the evening’s benefactors were a combination of people from all over the world.  All of them mingled over their plates to discuss their favorites, and discuss the merits of each chef prior to voting for the People’s Choice Award.  I sampled a few bites with Event Guest Lindsay Pieropan, as she enjoyed the tartlet from Russia.

Event Guest Lindsay Pieropan

Event Guest Lindsay Pieropan

The Embassy of Trinidad & Tobago and Chef Mukesh Ramnarine’s Corvina Nugget in a Coconut Curry Nage and Congo Pepper.  A deliciously flavorful spoon and a gorgeously bright table.

Trinidad & Tobago Table Decor

Trinidad & Tobago Table Decor

Chef Tiger's Offering for Trinidad & Tobago

Chef Tiger’s Offering for Trinidad & Tobago

The Embassy of China and Chef Xu Jinxue’s BBQ Chicken and Sauteed Shrimp Ball.  The Chinese booth produced a vibrant plate of food, and also gave a nod to their traditional tea culture.

Chef Xu Jinxue Prepares the Shrimp

Chef Xu Jinxue Prepares the Shrimp

BBQ Chicken and Sauteed Shrimp Ball

BBQ Chicken and Sauteed Shrimp Ball

The Embassy of Norway and Chef Simon Liestol Idso’s Potato Leek Soup with Slow-Cooked Norwegian Cod.  The Norwegian dish was artfully displayed and also featured a sample of the country’s native Linie Acquadavit.

Chef Simon Liestol Idso from Norway

Chef Simon Liestol Idso from Norway

Potato and Leek Soup with Cod with Linie Acquavit

Potato and Leek Soup with Cod with Linie Acquavit

After an hour or so sampling the different delicacies, Cultural Tourism DC honored a former colleague and event chair, Pat Skantze with an award in memoriam.  This award will now be an annual offering to those dedicated to preserving and highlighting our culture in DC.  We also received a surprise visit from DC Mayor Vincent Gray.  Mayor Gray spoke passionately about his dedication to our city and about all of the strong work from Cultural Tourism DC.

Mayor Vincent Gray

Mayor Vincent Gray

After Mayor Gray’s inspiring comments, we moved on to the fundraising portion of the evening.  Competition Judge and Auctioneer Carla Hall took the stage for what had to be the most entertaining auction ever!  She was effortlessly funny, and a natural in this role, as she helped the audience dig deep in their pockets to support this valuable nonprofit.

Our Host and Carla Hall

Our Host and Carla Hall

All of the votes were cast, and the judges assembled on stage to receive the competition results.

All of the Embassy Chefs

All of the Embassy Chefs

This year’s winner was Chef Nathan Bates of New Zealand, and he swept the awards with three victories, including the People’s Choice Award.  Last year’s winner, Chef Viktor Merényi from the Hungarian Embassy, was on hand to present his successor with the award.

Last Year's Winner from Hungary

Last Year’s Winner from Hungary

Chef Bates celebrates with the Ambassador of New Zealand and his wife.

Chef Bates with the Ambassador and his wife

Chef Bates with the Ambassador and his wife

This event was absolutely fantastic, and I cannot wait until next year!  It was the perfect excuse to dress up, stuff myself silly with foods from all over the world, and benefit a valuable cause.  For more information on Cultural Tourism DC and their events, check out their website at http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/.

About Megan McGrath:
Punch Palate Correspondent Megan McGrath is a serious foodie turned avid food blogger. Megan believes that food is fun, and is always looking for the next big thing on the DC food scene! She is the Assistant Director of Employer Outreach at a local law school in Washington DC, and works with all different types of legal employers and law students. Megan lives in Arlington, and can often be found experimenting in her kitchen for her blog http://imperfectlydelicious.com. Follow her on Twitter @imprfctlydelish.
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