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A taste of embassy-chef greatness

A few weeks ago, I posed the question, "Who's the best embassy chef?" Well, the votes are in, and according to the judges who tasted what 10 toques made at last Thursday's Embassy Chef Challenge, the answer is: Belgium's Jan Van Haute.

For the 400-plus guests who came to the event at the House of Sweden, a benefit for Cultural Tourism DC, Van Haute made bites of what he dubbed "A Walk Through Belgian Cuisine": pork belly, Brussels sprouts (get it?), mustard, Belgian endive (brilliant!) and Leffe Brown beer. For the judges -- myself and chefs Michel Richard, Carla Hall, Barton Seaver, Nora Pouillon, Martin Johansson and Sina Molavi -- it was a close decision. Van Haute's dish was intricate and luxurious, and we especially liked that it showcased his country's cuisine. (To be fair, such showcasing was not a specified requirement of the chefs, but perhaps it should be. Carla Hall suggested that next year, the theme be street food; what a great idea.) We also liked the dish that won the people's choice award: Israeli chef Einat Admony's soup of Jerusalem artichokes and chestnuts garnished with spicy whipped cream and nigella seeds. It was outright deliciousness.

The event, in its second year, was much more ambitious than the 2009 inaugural version. Last year, fewer chefs competed, and the tastings were passed around the crowd at the beautiful Mexican Cultural Institute. This time, the setup of stations at the House of Sweden allowed attendees to talk to the chefs about their cuisines, learning as they tasted. Van Haute's victory came because he also scored well in part 1 of this cookoff: Challenge Sweden, the event on March 7 that had seven of the chefs making food out of a mystery basket of Swedish ingredients. Hungary's Viktor Merenyi won that preliminary competition.

Also at last week's event was an active silent auction, and I have to say, I'm jealous of one generous benefactor who chose particularly wisely. Hours before Van Haute's victory was known, one of the highest-priced auction items sold was a private dinner for 10 cooked in the winner's home by the Belgian chef himself. It was a bargain at $900.

Don't fear: You'll soon have cheaper ways to taste these chefs' food. Mark your calendars for Passport DC, Cultural Tourism's annual embassy celebration, which includes the citywide embassy open house on Saturday, May 1; and the European Union embassies' open house on Saturday, May 8. Among others, chefs Van Haute of Belgium and Merenyi of Hungary will both be cooking up a storm for the latter.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  March 24, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags: Joe Yonan, embassies  
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