“Change for the better” was the theme of the 2017 National Geographic Explorers Festival: A Celebration of Exploration held in the courtyard of George Washington University. A star-studded cast of local chefs came together to celebrate luminaries in fields such as astrophysics and clean energy.
Wonderfully entertaining music and dance performances lit up the stage representing cultures from across the globe. And if the ultimate goal of this event was to change food for the better, it was a smashing success.
Before getting to the food, let’s recognize the actual honorees for whom the event was held. The uber famous Neil deGrasse Tyson accepted the Hubbard award celebrating a lifetime of accomplishments. The Rolex Explorer of the Year award went to Brian Skerry for his leadership and drive to uncover and share scientific findings, and Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg received the Further award, honored for their successes with exploration and innovation. In addition to the award winners, the event was hosted by comedian Mo Rocca and included special appearances by James Cameron, John Silva and Sam Harris.
The event was held on a typically sweltering D.C. June day, and so it was a relief to be greeted with ice cold glasses of sparkling water upon entering. Multiple bars and self-service appetizer stands took up residence in the middle of the tent which allowed guests to move around easily even when the crowds swelled as the event got underway.
Every table showcased unique mouthwatering eats, and with at least seven of the tables serving no less than two dishes, it was clear I had my work cut out for me. The presentations alone were so impressive that I felt it would be criminal of me not to taste something from each chef — and so began the grueling night ahead,Let me tell you, this was one hit I was all too willing to take.
Feasting began with an offering from Centrolina, represented by chef Amy Brandwein. Cooking octopus in and of itself is tricky; making it properly for hundreds of people is next to impossible. However, despite all odds, perfectly charred octopus spiedini with tangy pickled chili peppers decorated the table. Chef Brandwein served this and a refreshingly acidic tomato panzanella salad which proved to be a great way to start the night.
Crab cake sliders from Maryland’s eastern shore beckoned at the next table. Passing up fresh local seafood is never easy, and it is impossible when being served by five-time James Beard award nominee, Todd Gray, representing his restaurant Equinox. But sliders weren’t chef Gray’s only offering as vegetarian guests were treated to a unique pea falafel. While both of those dishes were good, the highlight at this table was the homemade angolotti; seasonal asparagus, a touch of lemon, and creamy ricotta made this dish a stand out.
Chef Erik Bruner-Yang, representing Maketto, was operating two tables each with three dishes. The first table showcased Thai flavors by serving sai krok with spicy ginger slaw, chicken satay, and sweet and bitter melon. The second table highlighted Indian flavors with lamb vindaloo, malai kofta, and saag paneer. Each dish from this table was a flavor bomb, but the show stopper was the kofta. I generally don’t seek out vegan food, but this was one of the best meatballs I’ve ever had — and I’m saying that as a flag-waving Italian! The tomato gravy was smooth and creamy and the kofta was crispy on the outside and light on the inside. Who knew a simple mixture of vegetables could make such a tasty “meat”ball?!
Other notables from under the tent include chef Victor Albisu from Del Campo with a flaky selection of empanadas; Mike Isabella’s Kapnos Marketa had a phyllo pie, and Jose Andres from Jaleo had the largest paella pan I’ve ever seen. It took a crew of six men to sauté, stir, and season the paella in this massive cooking vessel.
Servers walked around with strawberry basil “bajitos” as the line of people waiting to get a plate wrapped around the nearby bar. Meanwhile, two tables of cheese, vegetables, dips, crackers and crisps, and fruit were in between the bars, and these were not your typical crudité platters: Rainbow carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts and bright red radishes provided a colorful vessel to dip into the wild mushroom tapenade or sprouted chickpea hummus.
Bottom line: I didn’t leave hungry or thirsty. National Geographic did a tremendous job paying tribute to food, culture, and visionaries trying to bring awareness to their fields. D.C. is an eclectic, diverse, and delicious city, and its chefs proved it on this night. If you missed the event this year, be certain to attend next year as it’s not likely something you — or your taste buds — will soon forget.