Barbados and Panama Win DC’s Embassy Chef Challenge

The event brought together chefs from 22 countries for a "culinary diplomacy" competition in Union Station.

China and Panama both fared well at the 2024 Embassy Chef Challenge. Photograph courtesy of Events DC.

Chefs from 22 countries and five continents faced off in Union Station last week at the Embassy Chef Challenge, a culinary competition between nations meant to foster “culinary diplomacy.” The event, now in its 15th year, also gives DC foodies a chance to taste cuisines usually reserved for embassy guests. Two underdogs clinched the top audience and judges’ awards: Barbados and Panama. Neither country’s cuisine is well-represented in DC, but both were exemplary at the event.

Barbadian chef team Damian and Ann-Marie Leach served one of the island’s national dishes: coucou—a sticky, elastic savory porridge made with breadfruit—topped with curry lamb and pineapple chutney. They were joined by mixologist Dameain Williams, who created two tropical cocktails with Barbadian rum. The line for their booth stretched further than any others for much of the event, and Barbados ranked first in the peoples’ choice awards. 

Chef Jovana Urriola, who works with the Panamanian embassy and Cafe Unido, served distinctive Afro-Panamanian chicken tamales, encased in a dumpling-like steamed wheat flour shell, earning her the top prize from the judges.

Panamanian chef Jovana Urriola’s dumpling-like chicken tamales were a standout. Photograph by Ike Allen.

China, the Dominican Republic, and Thailand also fared well. China’s embassy chefs—Lin Song, Lu Tao, Li Xiaofeng, Jia Wehhni and Zhu Xianglin—served a tongue-numbing sichuan spicy fish, kung pao shrimp balls, and sichuan cold spicy noodles, along with delicate Hong Kong-style mooncakes. Thai embassy chef Wattanaphong Kongwattana delivered a zippy pla goong, shrimp salad, and warmly spiced beef massaman curry. And the Dominican Republic’s offerings, catered by Mecho’s Dominican Kitchen, included a giant lechon, yuca con wasakaka and crispy casabe bread with mojo. 

Some of our other favorites were also cuisines that are difficult to come by in DC. Uganda was represented by Massachusetts-based chef Sentie Kironde, who used an enormous banana leaf to display a spread of smoked goat, stewed green plantains, collard greens, fried ripe plantains, and slices of east African chapati. The embassy of Uzbekistan sent formally dressed emissaries to dole out rich Tashkent-style wedding plov—an oily rice pilaf with shredded lamb and chickpeas—prepared by chef Khamidulla Shamsudminov. 

At the Gambian booth, chef Hatib Joof sauced fried fish with a savory, funky peanut stew called domoda. Indonesian chef Artha Rini, who recently opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Kensington, served beef rendang and jackfruit curry over rice. Sri Lanka’s spicy chicken kottu roti and Guatemala’s garnachas, created by local chef Karla Alonzo, were also standouts. Madagascar’s embassy chef, Elian Pon, provided a rare opportunity to try the island’s cuisine with a vanilla-perfumed fish cooked in coconut milk and a peanut-and-banana based cake called koba.

Barbadian team Ann-Marie Leach, Damian Leach, and Dameain Williams took home the top peoples’ choice prize. Photograph by Ike Allen.

As guests at the sold-out event milled around, drank, and voted on their phones, the five judges—food writer Jarrett Melendez, Perry’s chef Masako Morishita,  food media personality Monica Alford, Axios (and former Washingtonian) food reporter Anna Spiegel, and presidential private chef Daniel Thomas—picked their own winners. 

“There’s so much pride in sharing their culture and cuisine, not just with the attendees but with each other,” says Nycci Nellis, a DC food media personality who emceed the event. “There’s a lot of isolation for the embassy chefs. These professionals don’t get the same sort of connection and networking with one another as other DC chefs.”

Ike Allen
Assistant Editor