Chef does Morocco proud at embassy cook-off

If you want good chicken pastilla, go to Morocco. If you want good chicken pastilla in Washington, go to the Moroccan Embassy.

A panel of celebrity chefs decided that the Moroccan Embassy chef presented the tastiest food in the first Embassy Chef Challenge on Wednesday at the Mexican Cultural Institute.

The spiced chicken mixed with almonds, layered between flaky phyllo dough and topped with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, also claimed the night’s people’s choice award.

Other featured chefs came from the embassies of Afghanistan, Haiti, Hungary and Trinidad and Tobago. They competed in three categories: appetizers, heavy hors d’oeuvres and desserts. Other entries included a ground beef dumpling from Afghanistan, herring dip from Haiti, veal paté stuffed with prunes from Hungary and Moroccan roasted chicken.

Two local reality television stars served as celebrity chefs: Carla Hall, the chef-owner of Alchemy Caterers in Maryland and a finalist on the latest season of Bravo’s “Top Chef”; and Rock Harper, the winner of the third season of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” who now runs Ben’s Chili Bowl’s new venture, Ben’s Next Door.

Both said they know how it feels to be judged.

“It’s terrible being in this position, because I want to be so fair,” Hall said. She said she looks for presentation, taste, flavor, texture and creativity in a good dish.

Harper said he admires the work of the embassy chefs and considers them among the highest professionals.

“I feel proud that they would ask me to be a judge,” said Harper, who added his main goal was to help everyone enjoy the evening.

But for the winning embassy chef Nazha Kasraoui, a lot was riding on the night.

“I’m here to represent my country and my culture,” said the Moroccan chef, though she recognized the possibility that the celebrity judges could be harsh.

“I know they will say the truth,” she said.

For Kasraoui, the truth could have meant her job had she not landed on top.

“I will fire her if she don’t win,” joked Mohamed El Hajjiji, the paymaster general at the Moroccan Embassy.

Other judges were local restaurateurs Ris Lacoste, Kaz Okochi, Michel Richard and Art Smith; author Gail Scott; and Joe Yonan, the food editor for The Washington Post.

Recognizing American appetites, event organizers had a pre-tasting buffet available with roast beef, black-bean tostadas, miniature fresh rolls and several cheeses. Servers then dispersed through the crowd to distribute a sample of each embassy chef’s dish.

In congratulating the winners, Hall told attendees she felt like she also gained a prize.

“I think that most of all tonight, all the textures and flavors and spices gave us an education … and I appreciate that,” she said.

The night’s proceeds went to Cultural Tourism DC, the event’s organizer.