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Who's the best embassy chef?

Chef Jan Van Haute's anchovy-butter-smeared salmon. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

For its annual gala last year, Cultural Tourism DC tried something new to help build interest in its popular annual Passport DC event: a little cooking battle to celebrate the cooking talents of Washington's embassy chefs. Four chefs made hors d'oeuvres that showcased his or her nation's cuisine, and hundred of guests and a panel of "celebrity" judges (I use the quote marks because I was one of them) tasted and voted. Nazha Karaoui, the charming chef from the Moroccan embassy, took both the judges' and people's choice prizes.

Chef Nazha Kasraoui of Morocco prepares whole salmon with charmoula. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

This year, she has some stiff competition. Three times as many embassy chefs are taking part, and the nonprofit added a warm-up competition that took place yesterday, pitting the chefs against one another in true "Iron Chef" style. Six Seven of the 12 11 gathered at Occasions Caterers in Northeast Washington for Challenge Sweden: cooking salmon and using a basket of surprise ingredients drawn from Swedish cuisine. For two hours, they chopped, stirred, baked, smoked, roasted, pureed and foamed their way around the kitchen as I and two fellow judges (Sina Molavi, Occasions executive chef, and Swedish Embassy chef Martin Johansson) observed their work and then retreated to an office to start our tasting.

How well would they use the ingredients in each basket? (Salmon, mussels, elderflower liqueur, horseradish, bleak roe, sunchokes, potatoes, peas, anchovies, Vasterbotten cheese and more; extra points for using as many of those ingredients as possible.) The chefs were allowed to incorporate staples donated by Safeway and provided by Occasions, and could bring their own spices and stocks.

There were some fascinating differences. Karaoui, the defending champion, was the only one to work with the whole salmon, which she rubbed with a charmoula (sauce) and baked. Moist and flavorful. But wait: Would her own olives and capers count as spices or stocks?

Chef Francis Otoo of Ghana rices potatoes for his gnocchi. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

Hungary's chef, Viktor Merenyi, was meticulous at his station, where he poached salmon fillets in olive oil and used a smoke gun to flavor garlic that he turned into a foam. The frenetic, unbelievably tall chef from Ghana, Francis Otoo, was the only one who used a little bag of rye flour (to make gnocchi). The Korean chef, Jae-ok Chang, wearing spiffy patent leather boots, finished her salmon in a mussel and pea sauce in no time, and then spent much of the rest perfecting her garnishes. Ana Maria Mas, the chef from Panama, added texture to her dish by frying fava beans. Belgium's chef, Jan Van Haute, made a delectable anchovy butter that he smeared on his salmon fillets, and showed off some serious knife skills by cutting fingerling potatoes into mushroom shapes. Chef Sunil Kiriwane of Qatar may have been the only chef to use the nutty Swedish cheese, blending it into the coating for his salmon kebabs.

Chef Jan Van Haute of the Belgian embassy transforms potatoes into "mushrooms." (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

The chefs had to heed strict time cues (whether someone yelled out "Time's up! Put your hands in the air and step away from your station!" a la "Top Chef," I can't say), and we judges had a mere five minutes to taste one dish and scribble notes before the next dish arrived. We graded them first and foremost on flavor, of course, but also considered visual appeal, use of ingredients, creativity and kitchen behavior.

I would say more, but our decision is a secret, kept under lock and key (okay, maybe just in the offices of Cultural Tourism DC) until the Embassy Chef Challenge 2010 on Thursday, March 18. That's because the scores from Sunday will be added to the scores from the main event, where the number of judges and competitors will grow. Chefs Carla Hall (no stranger to cooking competitions herself), Nora Pouillon, Michel Richard and Barton Seaver will join me on the judging panel, while chefs from Serbia, Timor Leste, Nepal, Israel and Bahrain will join the six seven who competed yesterday and prepare hors d'oeuvres for the gala's guests at the House of Sweden.

Patrons will vote again for the people's choice award, judges will nominate our favorite, and one of the chefs will walk away with the grand prize, the title of Embassy Chef 2010. (Hint: With the scores from Challenge Sweden boosting them, it will no doubt be one of the six seven.)

The upshot for you eaters, of course, is that on March 18 you will be able to taste these chefs' dishes, talk with the chefs about their countries and cuisines and help benefit the programs of Cultural Tourism DC at the same time. Tickets are $225, available here. Consider it generous, delectable charity.

-- Joe Yonan

By Joe Yonan  |  March 8, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Chefs  | Tags: Joe Yonan, chefs, embassies  
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Cool idea! [Now if some of the blog posts would go to the main news pages. It's lonely here in the comments section.]


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | March 8, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

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