The Washington Post

Carrot leek ginger soup was one of 89 entries at Nixon Peabody’s 24th annual cook-off. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Eight stacks of color-coded score cards were handed to this reporter and four other judges as we surveyed a conference room filled with homemade ceviche, braised short ribs, oxtail, baklava and chocolate bourbon pecan pie.

For the next two hours, we chewed and judged our way through 89 dishes a piece, ranking each on a scale of 1 to 6 for taste (1 = “Mmm ... cardboard?” and 6 = “It’s a taste sensation!”) and 1 to 4 for appearance (1 = “I’ll give it a try.” and 4 = “Looks too good to eat!”), occasionally turning to lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser.

Nixon Peabody, the international law firm that opened its Washington office in 1972, held its 24th annual cook-off last week. The team-building exercise has been a Washington office tradition for more than two decades, and is meant to bring together the firm’s 170 local lawyers and staff.

“It’s one of these great equalizers,” D.C. Managing Partner Jeff Lesk said. “A law firm tends to be more hierarchal. This is everyone — senior partners, associates, secretaries, staff ... everyone participates and everyone is on an equal playing field.”

The tradition began when retired partner Phil Cronin and his secretary, Michelle Anderson, challenged each other to a chili cook-off — which Anderson won. Today, it is a full-blown battle of the sexes that’s largely dominated by the women, who have won 18 out of the last 22 cook-offs, including this year’s.

Legal assistant Dillon Merritt with his curry Ghana aloo. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Nine first-place winners were crowned this year, one for each food category (appetizers; salads; soups and stews; vegetables; entrees; cuisine of the world; chocolate desserts; and non-chocolate desserts), plus an additional “best in show” award based entirely on presentation. That went to a cake topped with a ferris wheel and carousel made out of Rice Krispies treats.

The panel of judges also included Cedar Executive Chef Aaron McCloud, Haitian ambassador Paul Altidor, W. Millar & Co. Catering Director Ann Reifsnyder and Laurie Miller, of counsel at Nixon Peabody.

The winner of the cuisine of the world category — this year’s theme was the Caribbean — was paralegal Collette Simms’ jerk chicken — a family recipe the Jamaican native perfected with the help of her cousin. She hauled a Tupperware filled with wings onto the Metro that morning, and “guarded it with my life.”

Catherine Ho covers lobbying at The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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