One of the most common, and most worn, observations about Washington, D.C. from someone not from here is that we are a city of very little character; that all we are are government employees, contractors, and self-centered millennials. And while it’s hard to argue against this characterization when you’re butt-to-butt on a morning Red Line train heading to a drab 9-5, it quickly follows apart when you find yourself at an event like the 10th Anniversary Events DC Embassy Chef Challenge; an event so unabashedly D.C. that at times it felt like I was in D.C.-themed Westworld.
Upon exiting my Uber after a 30-min crawl to the Ronald Reagan Building, I was greeted with an inexplicable line of out-of-town teens trying to enter the building from the 14th Street entrance. After seeing a swath of MAGA t-shirts and Kanye’s favorite red hat, I decided that the 13th Street entrance was going to be the move. Once inside, I was greeted by the bluster of top-40 music emanating from the middle concourse area, with the sweet melodic trappings of Pitbull acting as my north star towards an event already in full swing.
The moment I entered the curtained main area, I knew almost immediately this event was going to be so much more than simply tasting food and drinking free tequila; this was going to be a goldmine for people-watching. And, for the first 30 or so minutes that’s exactly what I did. For all of their clichiness, events like this allow you to spend time with people you probably otherwise wouldn’t; people that define what it means to live in D.C.. Looking around the main area, I saw people wearing traditional Slovakian clothing sharing small plates filled to the brim with Colombian coconut shrimp and pancetta with representatives from the Iraqi Embassy and the Jamaican Embassy. Moments like this, often repeated throughout the night, served as a welcome reminder that for all the things D.C. is not, it is a city with an international community unlike any other.
In terms of the food, the experience was initially disappointing. The main area was primarily European and South American countries, but aside from the hearty Georgian Chanakhi lamb stew and the Chilean salmon ceviche with red beans the food was forgettable. Trying to communicate individual country-specific nuance, whether through flavor or texture, is very difficult in a small single serving, and it’s even more difficult when you have to communicate those nuances to a ravenous group of hungry people. Feeling disappointed, I began to wander around seeing what else was left to try. Luckily for me, the adjoining room with African and Asian nations was a short jaunt away.
Whereas the European and South American offerings were drab, the African and Asian nations really made the event. Within five minutes, I had had two dishes—the Maritarian dry shrimp tapenade served with tamarind lemonade and the Ghanaian Lamb jollof rice—that totally caught me off guard. The Mauritian dry shrimp was profoundly good, so much so that the only thing keeping me from not eating that one dish all night on repeat was the winding line behind me waiting to get their share. Much like the food, the environment was just as lively; every person I came across was jovial and ready to share their part of the world. Also a special shoutout to the Barbados table because whenever you unabashedly introduce your country as “the country where Rihanna is from” you win in my book.
In the 10 years I’ve lived in the area, I’ve gone to more events similar to the Events D.C. Chef Challenge than I can remember. But each time I’m happy I did. The international community is part of what makes our city our city, and events like this, where you can talk to a Panamanian about their thick-smoked pork soup and then top that off with some Kenyan sweets, make you proud that D.C. is so often misunderstood.