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All words: Travis Mitchell // All photos: Jason Dixson

The District has its share of celebrity chefs, each at the helm of packed, trendy restaurants. But some of the most creative and passionate chefs in this city don’t take reservations. These unheralded cooks spend their days behind embassy walls, whipping up native dishes for diplomats and their staff. All the while, they remain widely unknown to the public.

Nine of these chefs entered the spotlight on Thursday to share their cuisine and compete against their peers in the fifth annual Embassy Chef Challenge. Hosted by Cultural Tourism DC, the gala featured chefs from the embassies of Norway, El Salvador, Russia, China, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Norway, South Korea and New Zealand.

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These chefs gathered at Ronald Reagan Building to prepare a dish of their choosing to share with a panel of all-star judges and a food-savvy crowd. For the most part, the food did not disappoint, and it was an opportunity to sample some traditional cuisine without leaving the city. The drinks flowed freely too, thanks to a stocked bar and regional offerings like vodka and acquavit.

Top entries in my opinion came from Jamaica, South Africa and New Zealand. The judges and the rest of the audience agreed, as New Zealand Chef Nathan Bates received both the judges and people’s choice award for his roasted lamb served with a kiwi, herbs and honey relish. Bates also won the preliminary mystery-box challenge (held in February), giving a chef the triple-crown for the first time in contest history. Other top dishes included a Jamaican jerked chicken kabob, and grilled steak served with spicy chakalaka from South Africa.

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The judges panel was a smattering of local food industry big shots such as the Washington Post’s Tim Carmon, Top Chef alum Carla Hall, Hello Cupcake Chef Penny Karas, and “Ace of Cakes” Chef Duff Goldman. The judges ate and mingled with the attendees, making for a great mixing of professional and amateur food lovers.

Hall said the evening was a great way to unveil some of the mystery that surrounds Washington’s embassies.
“I think actually seeing the chefs and tasting their food just reminds you of everything that happens behind closed doors,” Hall said. “You just get to see so many different cultures and I think it’s very representative of DC.”

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She admitted she really dislikes the subjective nature of judging, especially having been on a cooking competition herself. Hall encouraged future competition chefs to incorporate more street food into their entries and focus on dishes that really reflect the local taste.

The Embassy Chef Challenge was a worthy showcase for DC’s growing reputation as a culinary destination, and it was great to see some of the city’s lesser known — yet incredibly talented — chefs to take center stage to represent their cooking and country. The recognition is well deserved, and I am already eager to see which countries take up the challenge in 2014.

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