- 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.

“I like to have guests that like the food, who really enjoy the food, and when I get good feedback,” he said.

Mr. Reyes and Mr. Idsoe are just two of the 10 embassy chefs competing this year, but they are representative of the wide range of cooking talent lined up for the competition.

Other competitors represent Afghanistan, Trinidad and Togabo, China, South Korea and Russia.

The gala is the second of the two-round competition. During a private round of cooking last month, each chef was given the same list of ingredients and instructed to cook something on the spot. The ingredients are chosen by the previous year’s winner, in this case, Chef Viktor Merenyi of Hungary. Other past winners represented Denmark, Belgium, and Morocco.

The points awarded at the improvised round will be added to the final round Thursday.

Zodwa Sikakane’s task is to create a dish that showcases South African cuisine, a challenge that might be easier said than done.

“We have a history more than 400 years old,” said Ms. Sikakane, 52. “It’s influenced by Dutch, German, French, and Indian cooking. Everything has been intermarried and is quite contemporary.”

But with a nearly two-decade cooking career, Ms. Sikakane said, it’s a test she’s willing to take.

“I want to promote the rainbow of diversity of South African cuisine,” she said. “Being from a large family, you end up being exposed to all types of cooking.”

Sherene James, 36, chef at the Embassy of Jamaica, is competing in her second Embassy Chef Challenge.

She ended up in a professional kitchen after growing up in a family that was always cooking.

“I just started because it was a means to an end. But I fell in love with it,” she said.

Once she realized that cooking could be more than a way to make ends meet, Ms. James discovered her passion.

“It’s like when Serena and Venus Williams step on the court to play tennis,” she said. “When I’m mad, I make my best dishes.”

As for fellow competitors, she said she would be cheering on her Caribbean partner Mukesh Ramnarine, of the Embassy of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and she is interested in seeing what New Zealand chef Nathan Bates dishes up.

She wouldn’t elaborate on what she would be cooking but promised it would be “finger-lickin’ good.”

Mr. Bates, 36, said he will be showcasing lamb.

“I’m hopeful the food will speak for itself,” he said.

For chefs in a transient city like the District, an endless supply of cultural influences and welcoming palates means “there’s a lot more interest and appreciation for good food,” he said.

Ms. Rahn agreed, saying, “This is a diplomatic community that’s now seeing the importance of showcasing their country’s culture and people, through food.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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