Last week, five local chefs traveled to New York City to represent the “Best of D.C.” at the James Beard House, the food-centric foundation’s stage for showcasing culinary talent from around the country. This annual dinner is one of many regional spotlight events the Beard foundation hosts.
The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) curates the event, in partnership with Events DC. It’s not an enviable task to choose just five chefs to represent the city’s booming dining scene, so RAMW president Kathy Hollinger and her team base their picks on the local association’s annual awards.
Each year, they select RAMMY award nominees and winners to feature at the dinner. This year, they wanted to emphasize a mix of deeply rooted chefs and up-and-comers. Kwame Onwuachi, the Kith/Kin chef who won his first Beard award this year for Rising Star Chef of the Year, headlined the event. Onwuachi, who specializes in Afro-Caribbean cuisine, also won a Rising Star award at the Rammys. Paola Velez of Kith/Kin, a finalist for Pastry Chef of the Year, also cooked at the Beard House.
Javier Fernandez (Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly and Adam Howard (Blue Duck Tavern) were each finalists for that award. Nilesh Singhvi of the Bombay Club, a 30-year-old institution downtown that was recognized with an Honorary Milestone of the Year award, represented the old guard.
For Fernandez’s first trip to the Beard House, he says his goal was “to represent and showcase Filipino cuisine one dish at a time.” To do that, he served a kale and spinach laing — a spicy stew amped up with the restaurant’s namesake pork belly and topped with a prawn wrapped in crispy rice noodles.
Howard blended the old and the new with his signature whole duck half smoke. The dish builds on Blue Duck’s traditional duck with the addition of half-pork and half-duck sausage stuffed under the skin.
Singhvi served tandoori salmon, a signature dish at Bombay Club from the beginning despite the fact that it’s always been an off-menu item.
Both Onwuachi and Velez grew up in the Bronx, so cooking at the Beard House represented something of an emotional homecoming.
“I would’ve never been in this situation if I hadn’t overcome the struggles of living in the Bronx.” says Velez, who served a tamarind pecan pie with banana foam and brown butter dust.
Onwuachi says creating opportunities for other chefs is a priority at this stage of his career. In that spirit, he served a dish that his sous chef, Martell Stone, created: Nigerian spiced ribeye with smoked plantain grits and pepper soup jus.
In addition to showing off their talent and accolades, the D.C. chefs used the night to demonstrate camaraderie. The vibe in the kitchen was calm and jovial, with chefs sharing bites and lending a hand in preparation and plating.
“D.C. has solidified itself as a restaurant city … I don’t think that’s a secret around the country,” Onuwachi says. “I’d say more importantly, it’s a sense of community that people should walk away with.”