September 9, 2010
Today’s guest writer is Brian Wolly, the magazine’s Associate Web Editor.
Last night’s penultimate episode of Top Chef: DC saw the “cheftestants” leave Washington, D.C. for Singapore, where the winner of the elimination-style cooking competition will be decided. Back when Bravo announced that D.C. would host the seventh season of Top Chef, my mind had raced to try to predict what challenges would be used to represent my home town.
Over the course of twelve episodes, we watched the chefs take on the Maryland blue crab, Ethiopian food (since that’s one of D.C.’s most vibrant ethnic communities), and concessions for the Nationals ballpark. They had to serve good food under the restrictions of lobbyists’ regulations (only foods on a toothpick) and make a “bipartisandwich” while tied to another chef by a shared apron. The CIA, NASA and several diplomats made appearances.
However, there were many parts of the capital city’s food culture that weren’t shown. A few more Top Chef: DC challenges we would have liked to have seen:
1. Make your own version of Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smoke
The half-smoke, a type of sausage, is the rare food that may have actually originated in D.C. Half-smoke connoisseurs can get their fix at street carts around the city, but the best-known version is at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Pittsburgh has Primanti’s, Philly has Pat’s and Geno’s…and in D.C., the must-visit hole-in-the-wall is Ben’s. The iconic D.C. eatery has been around for more than 50 years, and it was made even more famous when then President-elect Barack Obama stopped in for lunch with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Since then, the lines for half-smokes (with chili, preferably) and fries (with chili and cheese, preferably) have been around the block. I can only imagine what protein hybrids and exotic toppings the chefs would have dreamed up had they been given the challenge to create a half-smoke-inspired dish of their own.
2. Create a dish using regional ingredients inspired by American Indian cuisine
The Food and Think team’s favorite eatery on the National Mall is, naturally, Smithsonian-related: The National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe. Chef Richard Hetzler bases his menu on the native culinary traditions of five distinct regions of the Americas: the Northern Woodlands, the Northwest Coast, the Great Plains, South America and Meso America. So ideally, the cheftestants would draw knives to select one of those regions and then create a dish using indigenous ingredients like those featured at Mitsitam, which means “Let’s Eat” in native Delaware and Piscataway languages. Between the corn and wild rice, buffalo and salmon, yucca and yams, the range of ingredients would certainly be versatile enough to give the chefs creative room while paying homage to America’s original home-cooked meals.
3. Create a meal that Julia Child would have loved
While we’re dishing out some Smithsonian appreciation, we’d be remiss to not mention Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. The exhibit is the real thing, painstakingly recreated in 2002 using the contents of the famous chef’s home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (We’ve covered it before, and conducted a Q&A with the food artist behind Julie and Julia.) How great would it be to see the chefs explore the exhibit and then cook a classic French dish in the spirit of Julia? And then we’d get to hear everyone do their version of the “Julia Child voice,” which would make the episode a classic. Having the French palette (and accent) of Eric Ripert—executive chef of D.C.’s Westend Bistro, and one of the show’s judges for the season—in the mix would make it even better.
4. Make a Vietnamese meal from items bought at Eden Center
Every once in a while, I hear urban legends of foodies from Vietnam traveling to Falls Church, Virginia to eat authentic Vietnamese food. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the stories, but I do know that hidden in this small suburb of Washington you’ll find the Eden Center, a mecca of sorts for banh mi, pho and many other Vietnamese specialties. Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, made a name for himself in the early, wild-wild-West days of the web for his “Ethnic Dining Guide,” and his reviews of the many Vietnamese restaurants in Eden Center are still indispensable. In addition to its dining scene, Eden Center is home to labyrinthine Asian markets. Had the Top Chef crew visited the Virginia strip mall, it would have been a great exposure for the famous-to-us scene in the Greater Washington area.
5. Shop for ingredients at historic Eastern Market
Each season, it seems as though the show takes the chefs to a farmer’s market to buy goods for their next challenge. This season, with the filming taking place in late March and early April, I can see why the producers probably eschewed this, as little would have been in season. But the tour guide in me would have made sure the chefs took a trip to Eastern Market. Nearly destroyed by a fire in April 2007, the historic market building was recently restored and is a popular weekend destination for Washingtonians. Purveyors of homemade pasta, cheeses and sausages mingle with fishmongers and butchers inside the grand hall and out on the surrounding sidewalks. The venue lends itself to a great challenge on its own merits. (Runners-up: The Dupont Circle Farmers Market or White House Farmers Market.)
What D.C.-based cooking challenges and venues would you add to this list?
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