First Feds Get Fit Cook-off dishes winning, healthy recipes

Five federal employees competed Tuesday in the first annual, "Feds Get Fit Cook-off" at the Office of Personnel Management in Washington.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010

A trio of expert foodies agree: There's a Roasted Tomato Curry Coconut Soup With Shrimp and Peas you must try. But it's not on the menus of the District's top restaurants or lunchtime chains; instead it has been served to only a few employees at the Social Security Administration.

Melissa Knoll, 27, of Bethesda is a social science research analyst for SSA during the day, studying the behavioral and psychological reasons why and when people retire. But in her off hours, she's dreaming up recipes in the kitchen, including her soup, which combines a cauliflower curry recipe with a roasted tomato basil brew, she said.

"I kind of just combined the flavors and added the shrimp," Knoll told three "celebrity" judges Tuesday at the first Feds Get Fit Cook-off, organized by the Office of Personnel Management.

The agency launched the Feds Get Fit program in fall to promote healthy living and exercise. OPM Director John Berry granted time off last month for his agency's workers to walk and see the nearby cherry blossoms, and a fitness challenge is planned for September. Similar efforts are underway in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, cities with large pockets of federal workers.

"Top Chef" finalist and caterer Carla Hall, nutritionist Robyn Webb and WHUR radio personality and fitness guru Daryl Haley served as Tuesday's judges after selecting the five finalists from more than 180 Washington-area submissions.

In a scene resembling the chaos of Bravo's "Top Chef," the five contestants diced, chopped, sauteed and seasoned their dishes as hungry colleagues and reporters watched.

Knoll made her soup while Sapna Lulla, 25, a Federal Aviation Administration employee from Arlington, prepared Indian-style kabobs. Marcie Stone, 30, a policy analyst with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, baked Crantastic Choco Chews, and Housing and Urban Development employee Tobey Zimber, 38, whipped up a Quinoa Sunshine Salad With Asian Dressing. The Interior Department's Alexandra Ritchie, 30, made a fruit salsa and ceviche medley.

Knoll's soup prevailed, with its aroma, texture and wise mix of ingredients. Knoll thanked her immersion blender, while Hall credited the contestants for using natural ingredients instead of low-fat substitutes.

"Just cut back," she said later. "If you make it such that people think they're giving so much up, they'll fall off the wagon."

She agreed to participate because of the contest's potential to spread a healthy message across the government. "Considering that 2 million people work for the government, that's 2 million people carrying this message out."

OPM Deputy Director Christine M. Griffin agreed. "I think our concern overall is that we provide people with the opportunities and the tools to be healthier," she said.

OPM plans to publish the five recipes online and hopes agencies will include them on their cafeteria menus.

"We'd like to do something here. Maybe that soup," Griffin said, eyeing a bowl. "I mean, the judges were raving about the soup."

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