The event, which is in its ninth year, is the only time the diplomatic community comes together socially.
There is a gigantic venue where visitors can sample authentic cuisines from 35 countries in a single day. One minute they can enjoy salmon ceviche and merquén mussels from Chile, and the next, jollof rice with chicken and fried plantains from Ghana. Adults can taste wines from Bolivia or the iconic gin-based cocktail from Singapore, the Singapore Sling. In between noshing, guests can dance to live folk music and watch performances from all corners of the earth.
“It’s a very happy place,” said Red Garcia, the chef representing the Philippines. “Food is like music. We break bread, and we share our culture and values. Everyone brings the best of everything.”
This may evoke Epcot, the theme park inside Walt Disney World in Orlando where families “travel” to different countries, going on educational rides and taking photos with costumed staff members. But unlike an amusement park, there is nothing manufactured about this experience; some even call it cultural diplomacy at work.
This is the Embassy Chef Challenge, an annual party in Washington, D.C. held this year on May 24. Private chefs from embassies across the nation’s capital gather at the Ronald Reagan Building and National Convention Center to prepare their favorite dishes. A panel of culinary experts judge the dishes based on presentation, taste and how well the chefs represent their countries. The visitors select a people’s choice award, as well.
The ticketed event is in its ninth year—this year has the largest representation of countries—and it is the only time the diplomatic community comes together socially. “It is very important that we convene the city, country and world’s most influential individuals in cultural arts to build relationships,” said Erik Moses, the senior vice president and managing director for Events DC, which puts on the event. “It is necessary that we show our appreciation for the many cultures that make up our nation’s capital.”
For global foodies, the event offers a rare opportunity to taste the food of renowned chefs who normally work behind closed doors—or across oceans. When ambassadors arrive in Washington D.C., they move into their country’s embassy, and then they appoint an in-house chef to cook for their families and guests. Because wining and dining is a key maneuver in politics, they appoint the very best chefs from their home countries. Unless you’re invited to the embassy as a guest, this challenge is your only chance to try their food.
This year, Synthia Verna is one of the most hotly-anticipated chefs. Known as “Chef Thia” back home in Haiti, she hosts television shows and writes cookbooks on Caribbean cuisine. In the U.S., she is part of the Haitian Embassy’s culinary team, and for the Embassy Chef Challenge, she’s preparing the dish she’s famous for: creole chicken, yellow basmati rice served with pigeon peas, Roma tomatoes and coconut milk, as well as a beet and carrot salad with homemade lime dressing.
Some embassies use the event as an opportunity to introduce new foods to American palates. The Embassy of Azerbaijan will be pouring wines from their up-and-coming, high-altitude growing regions this year. The embassy of Sri Lanka, aware that their cuisine is growing in popularity in the U.S., is conducting a seminar on making kottu roti, a beloved snack made with vegetables, egg or meat and spices.
For many chefs, representing their countries is a huge honor—and a nerve-wracking task. “I’m a little bit anxious,” said Garcia. “It’s a big deal for me. I came from nothing, and for them to call me up and ask to represent Philippines, that’s an honor, that’s a privilege, and it’s a really cool thing.”
He decided to create a traditional dish where he wraps rice, meat, fish, eggs and pickled vegetables in banana leaves. “It’s how we used to prepare our food back in the old days,” he said. “It’s like a lunch box. We didn’t have a fridge, so we wrap everything in banana leaves to keep it fresh and then we carry it in the fields and eat it with our hands.”
For Damien Leach, a chef from Barbados representing his embassy, the fun part is winning. His country took home the people’s choice award last year, so he feels some pressure to keep the momentum going. He especially wants to beat his “Caribbean brothers,” with whom he has a friendly rivalry. He’s making a piña colada mahi mahi filet, a crowd favorite back home.
Of course, food diplomacy is not the same as high-level missile negotiations or trade agreements. But it can go a long way in helping the diplomacy staff members get to know each other and bond over something they all love: delicious food.
“I’m pretty sure there will be some talk of politics because we are in D.C., but the good thing is when you eat with different nations or other races or ethnicities, you realize food has no color,” Garcia said. “It makes you not care if you are a Republican or Democratic. As long as you share your culture, you can learn from one another, and it’s all good.”