by Clara Ritger, special to EdibleDC
As I rode the escalator down into the pit of the Ronald Reagan Building, I could already see the crowds of people gathered around the booths of the 18 countries represented at the 2016 Embassy Chef Challenge.
They might as well call it the Embassy Chef Olympics, because it was the Olympics of food. Every dish being served, and every facial reaction from the people consuming it was a matter of national pride. Each morsel was part of a unique meal crafted by the chef to represent the best cuisine of his or her country, and it was all a big show in the hopes that the taste of the country would leave a lasting impression on potential tourists.
It was delicious.
Tickets for the evening sold out, and despite there being 18 cuisines to choose from, word got around about crowd favorites, causing people to line up at some booths, chatting as they eagerly awaited their turn. One such booth -- Ecuador -- featured a well-prepared shrimp ceviche, served with toasted quinoa and a crunchy plantain chip to add complexity and texture to the dish. Whether it was the dish, or the giant vertical poster of an intense-looking Chef Carlos Gallardo that drew the crowd, I’ll never know. All I know is that my new career goal is getting a poster like that of myself.
I made my way around to most of the booths, dining on plov (rice with meat and carrots) at Uzbekistan, piti urap dengan sate serepeh (chicken skewer with mixed veggies in a puff pastry) at Indonesia, duck pierogi served with a refreshing pear puree at Poland, and beer braised beef on a tostada with corn flan at El Salvador.
The audience favorite of the night -- and a dish that intrigued my palate -- was Philippines’ Chef Claude Tayag’s bringhe, which was topped with bangus (milkfish) and crab fat, apparently the new duck fat, or at least, the duck fat of the Philippines.
Toward the end of the night, I asked one chef how many he’s cooked for at his embassy. The invites range from 50 to 500, he told me. Tonight though, he prepared 600 plates -- and still ran out of food. A sign, if you ask me, that attendees were happily coming back for more.
The Embassy Chef Challenge occurs annually in May, as a part of Cultural Tourism DC’s month-long international program known as “Passport DC.” For more information, visit culturaltourismdc.org.
Clara Ritger is a filmmaker and journalist based out of the Washington DC area. She loves food and telling the stories of the people who make it. Connect with her on social: Facebook • Instagram • Twitter