At this point, Lamb Jam is a D.C. springtime fixture. The annual traveling event, hosted and organized by the American Lamb Board, regularly brings together a city’s prominent chefs and challenges them to do their best with the day’s star ingredient: lamb. Yes, it’s a trade association event, and yes, it’s oddly funny to say “Lamb Jam” over and over again, but it’s a wonderful showcase for a versatile, flavorful protein that doesn’t get enough love in the U.S. A rotating cast of BYT authors have been covering Lamb Jam DC since 2013, and it was finally my turn. Happy to report that I was not disappointed.
This year’s event had sixteen DMV area chefs competing against each other for the title of Lamb Jam DC Champion, each tasked with creating a signature lamb dish. Judged by a panel of culinary experts, as well as by the popular vote – each attendee was given a token to pick their favorite dish – the end result was a range of dishes that forded the culinary spectrum, from lamb burgers to Chinese-food inspired bites to more traditional Mediterranean flavors.
This was complemented with beer, wine, and spirits from a variety of purveyors including Allagash Brewing Company, Lubanzi Wines, and Cotton + Reed distillery. Of course, among the eating and drinking there was also an educational component – lamb producer and author John Jamison gave a demonstration of how to butcher an entire animal in front of the crowd of several hundred. It’s obviously not for the squeamish, but I’m always happy to be reminded of the physicality of food production; it helps to drive home the hard work, respect for the animal, and inherent value of eating something that was raised with great care and attention.
Lamb Jam offers a VIP package that allows guests access an hour earlier than the general public, and included access to a caviar bar, a welcome sparkling wine drink, and an ultra soft commemorative t-shirt. Would I pay an extra $50 – a total of $125 – to skip the lines and get an extra hour of gluttony? Probably not. But plenty of people obviously felt that was a good investment, as there were already easily 50-60 people upon my arrival just fifteen minutes after the scheduled start time.
Dock 5 at Union Market remains an ideal space for Lamb Jam, with its high ceilings, spartan-industrial finish, and functional setting. It was great to see a couple of different chefs and sous-chefs cooking their lamb on open-air grills, and the heavenly smell of cooking meat wafted throughout the afternoon. Despite the high number of people in attendance, it never felt crowded, and wait times for trying a dish were under five minutes at even at the most popular stations. Speaking of which, it was interesting to see how current culinary trends are interpreted through the filter of an ingredient with as much character as lamb: quite a few chefs attempted their own twist on lamb tacos, including a delicious barbacoa from Taqueria del Barrio’s Anna Bran-leis.
Even the Best in Show winning dish, from Cava’s Chef Dimitri Moshovits, accentuated the roast, shredded lamb with truffles and ramps, every chef’s favorite seasonal wild onion. It was as mouth-watering as it sounds – a perfect balance of rich fattiness from the lamb cut by the sweet tartness of the ramps.
That being said, competition was certainly fierce this year, and I was impressed with most dishes on offer, with exception of one or two missteps that were either overcooked or cooled down too quickly, making the meat tough to chew easily. No matter how good of a chef you are, cooking for hundreds of people still presents unforeseen challenges.
All in all, we ate, we drank, and we tried all kinds of cuisines and seasoning. I’m glad I was able to experience this year’s ode to the humble lamb, and look forward to attending next year. But please remind me to bring the TUMS.
Photos by Ruben Gzirian, Words by Jose Lopez-Sanchez