- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2013

Along a roughly two-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue exists a secret world, one with high-profile names, ritzy locations, and extravagant experiences that many can only dream about: the kitchens of Embassy Row.

Amid the stoves and shelves, cookers and cutting boards, the chefs at the helms of these kitchens feed some of their country’s most important people, contributing directly to culinary diplomacy and showcasing the best their homeland can offer to an equally select audience.

But for one night each year at the Embassy Chef Challenge, the dining room doors are thrown open, and the culinary curious are invited to take a seat at the table.

The chef challenge, now in its fifth year, pits some of the embassy chefs against one another in a two-round cooking challenge. Along with diplomats, the general public is invited to attend and vote on their favorite exotic dish. Tickets aren’t cheap, but the money goes to the nonprofit Cultural Tourism DC.

“There’s a huge part of Washington that nobody has focused on, which is the diplomatic community,” said Kyle Rahn, director of development for Cultural Tourism DC. “We’ve got some of the best chefs in the word sitting at the pleasure of the ambassadors, and they’re cooking behind closed doors. [The chef challenge] is truly elbow to elbow. It’s an international cultural exchange.”

The competition, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, is a way for attendees to mix it up with a variety of people, Ms. Rahn said, and it sets the tone for the organization’s Passport DC event this spring.

It’s also a chance for the chefs to learn a thing or two.

“In the kitchen, I never finish learning. I’m learning every day,” said Ismar Reyes, chef for the Embassy of El Salvador and owner of El Nopalito, a Salvadoran restaurant in Silver Spring.

“This is a great opportunity to see what other chefs are doing. Each chef wants to share knowledge and learn from each other.”

The eldest of nine, Mr. Reyes, 50, got his start cooking for his siblings on his family’s farm.

“That was my school,” he said with a grin.

For Simon Idsoe, 22, his list of schooling and apprenticeships reads like a European guidebook. Born and raised in Norway, the blond-haired, blue-eyed chef went from his grandmother’s kitchen to elegant restaurants in France.

“Working here is different than being a chef in a restaurant,” Mr. Idsoe said in the Norwegian Embassy’s gleaming stainless steel kitchen.

“I was a bit scared,” he said about the move to the United States last year, “but excited to travel and see new places.”

Mr. Idsoe was asked to try out for the embassy challenge and he said he jumped at the chance.

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