“Don’t just take pictures, actually try some of our food!”–said a smiling representative of the Embassy of Moldova at the Ottawa Embassy Chef Challenge on November 5th, 2015. The Moldovan chef, Nata Albot, offered a traditional take on a classic meal in the region, namely: stuffed peppers. The Embassy of Moldova’s table was adorned with local wines–this small Eastern European country has a dynamic and growing wine industry, producing over 124,000 tons of wine per year — as well as crafts and folk art. It reminded me of unpretentious Sunday lunches at my grandmother’s home years ago. And while the Embassy of Moldova didn’t win the challenge, they could have easily scooped up an award for their outstanding hospitality.
The other Eastern Europe competitor was just one table away from the Moldovans: Zsolt Varga, the chef at the Embassy of Hungary in Ottawa, also went for a traditional dish, but with a decidedly contemporary twist. Mr. Varga served up small medallions of venison stuffed cabbage, all nicely seasoned and with a very slight sweetness. It was quite a refined version of a dish that is well-known throughout the region. Participants enjoyed recommended wine and beer pairings with each of the dishes, and the wide selection of vintages and brews highlighted the international scope of the event.
The 2015 Ottawa Embassy Challenge served as a fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Participants went to each table to sample meticulously prepared small plates from the chefs of seven embassies or high commissions, namely: Great Britain, Hungary, Moldova, the Philippines, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago and Spain.
Victoria Hall was packed with guests and a few of them no doubt stood out, at least to anyone who has followed Canadian politics over the past few decades. John Manley, Canada’s former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, as well as a one-time Minister of Foreign Affairs, was present. The Ceremonial Guard of the Canadian Armed Forces also made an appearance and a guard accompanied each of the competing chefs to the stage. As the queue of people waiting in front of the Embassy of the Philippines grew to astounding proportions, I strategized with one of the guards on the best possible order to try the dishes at the seven embassy tables.
At the end of the day, the Embassy of Trinidad & Tobago, represented by Chef Resa Solomon-St. Lewis, won the 2015 Embassy Chef Challenge for her dish, which included coconut-infused curry goat, fresh cucumber chow, a Tamarind rum glaze and a hibiscus rum cocktail to wash it all down.
By the end of the evening, the organizers of the challenge–the IBD Foundation–presented a $100,000 cheque to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, with which the medical centre will purchase equipment used in treating inflammatory bowel disease among its youngest patients. Congratulations to all the chefs for participating and for sharing their talent!