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Entertaining for Their Countries

On Embassy Row, Some Important Meals Start With a Hands-On Trip to the Market

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; Page F01

Ellen Vollebaek's first diplomatic reception lingers in her memory. Soon after her husband, Knut, joined the Norwegian Foreign Service in 1973, the couple was invited to the Egyptian Embassy in Oslo. Not knowing anyone, the Vollebaeks stood in a corner. A lavish party swirled by.

She was impressed by the huge, silver trays piled with pyramids of stuffed grape leaves and "very exotic Arab dishes that filled the buffet table and were constantly replenished." Considering the splendid orchestration of the evening, she thought to herself, "I could never do this."

Singaporean ambassador Heng-Chee Chan, right, and her cook Ludivinia Abad shop for produce at Asian food marts in the Wheaton area. (Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)

But on a recent morning, 30 years later, Vollebaek, wife of the Norwegian ambassador to the United States, is gathering groceries with her chef in suburban Washington. In the coming weeks, there will be teas, receptions and dinner parties to plan and execute.

She keeps in mind the day of the week that the Norwegian salmon arrives at the Swedish Fish store in Arlington and weighs the availability of fresh smoked pork at the German Gourmet market in Falls Church.

Even after nearly four years in Washington and previous postings in India, Spain, Zimbabwe and Costa Rica, she finds that planning events "is still a bit of a challenge. But I like to have a hand in what's going on, discussing menus and shopping," she says. "It's so important that it be elegant."

The presence of more than 170 embassies in Washington suggests that rounds of entertaining must be going on every day of the year. But this is not the case. While there are delegations that entertain several times a week with a seemingly infinite supply of large shrimp and small lamb chops, such schedules are far from universal. France, Mexico and Germany, in particular, are known for busy social calendars, according to Victor Shiblie, publisher-editor of the monthly newspaper Washington Diplomat.

Far more embassies have a limited budget, a small staff and no chef in residence. Entertaining in restaurants is the norm. Caterers are called for the yearly, national-day celebration if there is a party at all. Still, a good number of ambassadors adopt the position that they have a duty to open their home, share their culture and entertain.

At the English Renaissance-style Norwegian ambassador's residence on Massachusetts Avenue NW some 3,500 guests a year are invited to events that range from tea for four to a formal dinner for 24 to the big blowout -- the annual May 17 National Day reception for 700.

The Vollebaeks host events for visiting Norwegian business groups and university alumni associations. Often a women's club will ask to hold a luncheon in the embassy. "It increases the likelihood that the members will turn up," says Ellen Vollebaek, lifting her brow for emphasis. Now and then, dinner with the Vollebaeks is a prize at a silent charity auction.

The embassy's kitchen is spacious and attractive with white cabinetry accented in sky blue. The range top has 10 electric heating elements and there are three ovens.

Last September, Sebastian Myhre, 21, an associate of the Culinary Institute of Norway, arrived for a one-year term as chef. He has quickly adapted to embassy life in Washington but admits it has not been easy.

"There was no one to teach me anything, where anything was. I knew nothing about this country," says Myhre as he butters pans in preparation for baking the ambassador's favorite, spring wheat bread. On his second day on the job, he single-handedly made platters of hors d'oeuvres for 200 guests. He is already at work on the arrangements for the March visit of the Norwegian monarch King Harald V and Queen Sonja.

He calls his style of cooking refined Norwegian, "where you keep the taste in all the ingredients. If you are serving potatoes, you don't drown them in truffle oil or put balsamic vinegar on everything, a trend that is so popular these days in Europe."

No matter what the occasion, "You have to have smoked salmon in one form or another because Norway is so associated with good salmon," says Myhre, who buys smoked fish at Costco. Specialty items such as lefsa, a flatbread made with potatoes, and lutefisk -- dried cod treated with lye that takes on a gelatinous texture when simmered in water -- are purchased at Swedish Fish. Whole Foods gets the nod for vegetables. But for Myhre, that's too many stops.

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