On Thursday, May 17th I attended the 10th Annual Embassy Chef Challenge held once again at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building. Twenty-eight embassy chefs made a variation of a traditional dish they grew up on in their native country.

The Embassy Chef Challenge embodies Culinary Diplomacy and illustrates what makes Washington, D.C. an international food mecca. The event itself is like walking around a live Food Network cooking competition. Aromas of unique spices, sounds of meats sizzling on a grill, and visions of seafood soups being poured into adorable little plastic square-shaped bowls are the first thing you will notice.

Culinary Diplomacy promotes public diplomacy through food. I first learned about Culinary Diplomacy from my friend and chef, Amy Riolo, that gives talks on this topic internationally.

My first stop was the Embassy of Morocco. Chef Faical Zahraoui’s dish was titled, “Chicken with Spices from the Earth and Sea” and paired with a mojito style mint tea. The dessert was a chocolate bar with spices and smoked amlou or also spelled amalou. Amlou is a Moroccan spread made with almonds, honey and argan oil (same oil used for hair care but produced differently). I loved the richness of the chocolate and their use of spices that added a depth of flavor. They won for Best Dressed Embassy for their colorful table display and it is evident in the photo.

Chef Djamel Amroune of the Iraqi Embassy made one of my favorite dishes last year and he did it again this year with beef short ribs rubbed with blended spices over a dill Iraqi rice and garnished with crispy shallots. He dressed the dish with dry shaved baby carrots. I loved smokiness flavor the dill took on after being cooked with the rice.

Chef Felipe Milanes of the Embassy of Panama made a traditional smoked pork with pork crackling and garlic jam combination. The pork was well-cooked and delicious. My friend and, fellow food writer, JC Gibbs, attended the event with me and is from Panama. The dish was paired with Panama’s national rum, “Ron Abuelo” that was mixed with ginger syrup, lemon juice and angostura. Refreshing drink with only a hint of angostura.

Chef Felipe Milanes

Caribbean cuisine is one of my favorites and was excited to try Chef Wenford P. Simpson of the Embassy of Jamaica’s oxtail and butterbean over four cheese mac ‘n cheese. He topped it with a mango chutney. I never expected a dish crossed with traditional Caribbean ingredients and a much-loved American comfort food yet it worked and tasted fantastic! I love that he created a Jamaican-style mac ‘n cheese dish.

Chef Jouvens Jean of the Embassy of the Republic of Haiti took 3rd place for the Judge’s Choice award for his incredible Kabrit Kreyol served with Haitian Cinnamon Water. Cinnamon has a magical way of enhancing any dish it’s cooked in and Chef Jouvens’ was a delicious example.

Chef Jouvens Jean

Chef Cynthia Verna of the Embassy of Haiti who won last year’s People’s Choice Awards for her ceviche was one of this year’s judges. She was running around doing a Facebook Live to share the night’s activities and she pulled me in front of her phone to wave to her viewers.

Chef Creig Greenidge and his team at the Embassy of Barbados and their infections positive energy only made me want to visit their island like tomorrow. Mixologist, Philip Antoine, crafted two cocktails. The first he featured was served a few sprigs of rosemary. The second called “Drunken Bajan Lemonade” was the cocktail highlight of my evening. I was not surprised that they won for best cocktail. Now I need to track down this Mount Gay purple rum.

JC Gibbs and I trying the first cocktail from the Embassy of Barbados

Mixologist Philip Antoine

Chef Giovanni Merle of the Embassy of Mauritius’ seafood stew with a puffed cracker was stewed to perfection. The stew was not too rich and full of flavor. I could have enjoyed a huge bowl! Their team was friendly and stopped to chat with us. The amazing chocolate pudding dessert he made covered warm sautéed bananas that, if my memory is correct, was sautéed in rum. I love chocolate and bananas together and the chef took this combination to a whole new level. I would love to have the recipe.

Chef Giovanni Merle

Chef Malkhaz Maisashvili, of the Washington, D.C. restaurant Supra, was previously the chef of the Embassy of Georgia. His dish called “Chanakhi” was a lamb stew with tomatoes, aubergines, potatoes, greens, and garlic. The flavors complimented each other beautifully. I am a huge fan of Georgian red wines, which are gaining popularity in America. The red wine paired perfectly with the lamb stew.

Chef Malkhaz Maisashvili

The Embassy of Moldova did not have a food option but they did have a generous selection of their wines to taste. I fell in love with the white Cabernet Sauvignon. When I worked at a winery in Virginia I once tasted a white Merlot from another winery at a wine festival I was working. When making the wine they don’t let the red skins ferment with the juice after it is pressed so the wine will not pull color from the skins. This creates a unique version of the much-loved red wine.

I wish I could say I tried every single dish yet some embassies ran out of food by the time I made my way to their table. I was disappointed to miss the Embassy of the Philippines since their Chef Abigail Sincioco-Mateo won both the Judge’s Choice and the People’s Choice. She made Pork Sisig that apparently wowed the judges. Second place went to the Embassy of Ghana for his Lamb Jollof Rice. Third place was Chef Jouvens Jean of Haiti who won the Judge’s Choice. Chef Alex Salgao of the Embassy of Colombia won third place in the People’s Choice award for his Coconut Shrimp with Pancetta. I did taste this dish and it deserved to win.

Nycci Nellis, of Foodie and the Beast culinary podcast and The List Are You On It?, was one of the night’s judges. She also had the honor of introducing Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Siyabulela Mandela, who had some beautiful inspiring words to say about Culinary Diplomacy and its importance in the world.

Brooklyn based band, City of the Sun, performed once again this year. Their unique talent and dynamic instrumentation mesmerized the audience. I would pay to see these guys live they are truly incredible!

This was my fourth Embassy Chef Challenge and third time on the press team to help promote this event both during and afterward. This year’s setup was done exceptionally well and I found it much easier to approach each table.

This event showcases Washington, D.C.’s international appeal in the most delicious way. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of unity and love with all the diverse dishes and languages engulfing the room. Everyone comes to celebrate not only food but the diversity that makes our world so beautiful. The Embassy Chef Challenge event remains my favorite D.C. event and if you have not been be sure to go next year!

Written by Lisa M. Comento