Attracting a huge lunch crowd is generally a good thing for a restaurant. On Thursday afternoon, however, Haidar Karoum and his crew of cooks at Proof (City Paper‘s pick for D.C.’s  Best Restaurant 2011) were probably wishing things were a bit slower.

Karoum and company had been planning to do a practice run in preparation for the evening’s big event: the annual Capital Food Fight, pitting the Proof toque against big-time kitchen contemporaries Todd Gray, Jeff Black and Brian McBride in a competitive cook-off for charity. In each round, the chefs are given 10 minutes to whip up something involving a yet untold secret ingredient. And while the food fight is ultimately about “a good cause”—-the charity event, also featuring tastings from 60 local restaurants, benefits the D.C. Central Kitchen—-nobody wants to lose. Nobody. “All chefs are competitive,” he says. “It’s a pretty high-stress situation. It’s going to be fun because it’s stressful and that’s what we love to do.”

A week earlier, Karoum huddled with prior contestant Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck over a meal at Toki Underground to strategize. “He was giving me pointers, like, keep it more simple than you’re used to,” Karoum says. “Ten minutes goes by really fast. Strategizing seems to be the most important part because it’s not like you’re in your home kitchen where you know where everything is. Here, you have to account for the fact that you’re going to lose time just finding shit. So it’s really just coming up with dishes that can be executed in 10 minutes.”

Karoum isn’t underestimating the competition. “These are some serious veterans that I’m going up against,” he says. “Todd Gray is a beast. Back in the day, Todd Gray was the chef at Galileo in its heyday. He was the general who ran that kitchen. He’s no joke. I don’t take anybody lightly. Jeff Black, Brian McBride—-they’re all seasoned vets. I’m honored to be included in the mix. We’re going to do our best and see how it goes.”

Read Y&H’s coverage of last year’s food fight here and the previous year here.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery