Chefs at Washington embassies usually need to please only a small universe of diners: the ambassador, embassy staff and guests at diplomatic functions.
But recently in Washington, an array of international chefs donned their best white uniforms and prepared some of their finest dishes in a diplomatic cooking competition that has become an annual event.
The 2014 Embassy Chef Challenge last month brought a diverse set of cooks, from Botswana to Venezuela, who sought to feed the public and sway a panel of culinary judges.
The event was sponsored by the non-profit group Cultural Tourism DC in the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
There were famous national dishes, such as Italian eggplant, Iraqi kibbeh, Jamaican jerk salmon and Nepal’s momo dumplings. Polish women in traditional dress accompanied their embassy chef’s offering.
The Russian embassy decided to take an untraditional approach by mixing fish and dessert in their chef’s salmon ice cream offering. Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak was very proud of what he termed a “unique recipe” that he helped refine in tastings with his chef.
Kislyak and his ambassadorial colleagues ranging from Latin America’s El Salvador to Asia’s Thailand, said in brief interviews they were also relieved to be at an event that was informal--and centered on food rather than political differences.
North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and other world trouble spots were set aside. Culinary competition triumphed over geopolitics for an evening in Washington.
“It’s so loud that you can’t talk seriously,” Moscow’s emissary Kislyak said. “That’s something I like about this event.”
“It is one day to leave behind the troubles of world,” Thai ambassador Vijavat Isarabhakdi said. Vijavat would later have huge diplomatic issues to face over his country’s coup.
It took Isarabhakdi’s wife some time to locate the Thai ambassador among the spread-out group of inviting embassy food stations.
“I was sampling the competition,” he said.
A Jamaican diplomat sipped coconut water and said he enjoyed the chance to visit other countries simply by going around the room.
Chefs in charge
The normal Washington power order was turned upside down, with the chefs being in charge of representing their countries and the ambassadors left as hopeful bystanders. The cooks took their craft as seriously as diplomats pondering the implications of a speech.
Turkish embassy chef Hasan Siyam had been working for days on his entry: tender lamb wrapped inside eggplant, accompanied by mini-rice pilaf in a phyllo dough dome.
“Turkish food you have to work,” he said, compared to “American food, mostly burgers, hot dogs, pie—that kind of stuff.”
Several chefs said a secret to cooking in embassies is to literally leave a flavor of their home country, no matter what the origins of the dish.
Norway’s chef Sindre Risvoll, who started culinary school at age 15, prepared North Atlantic halibut confit, accompanied by smoked puree of celeriac, sun choke, and cured game meat. At an informal event, he said he might serve burgers “but with soured cabbage for a Norwegian twist.”
A colleague from a very different country also took the same approach to embassy cooking.
“I take a typical American dish and fuse it with a Latin touch,” said El Salvador’s Edgar Melendez, who was serving tenderloin of beef, but diced with Salvadorian plums in honey brown sugar.
At the embassy chef event, those normally behind the stove were glad to come out and be put on public display with their colleagues. Some had their names embroidered on their chef’s jackets.
Botswana’s chef Boitshwarelo Graffius was grateful to have the opportunity to see how her pulled goat meat with sweet onion sauce, butternut squash and spinach would stack up among the judges.
“This is a competition. At the embassy, I’m just cooking,” she said with a hearty laugh.
In the end, the judging was a split decision, with salmon triumphing in both categories. The culinary professionals voted for Thailand’s “Phla Salmon,” spicy salmon salad.
The People’s Choice Award went to Russia for its unusual but popular salmon ice cream. It was a triumph for Russia in a building named for Ronald Reagan, seen by many as prevailing over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
More than a dozen chefs lined up for a group portrait in their formal outfits, as if they were national leaders at a world summit. They chatted animatedly as television cameras captured the scene in several languages. A volley of cameras clicked to take their picture.
For one night in Washington, international politics were put aside and the chefs were the star of the diplomatic show.