Dining with the stars: What it takes to host, cook for ‘Honors’ celebs

A behind-the-scenes look at one of DC's biggest star-studded dinners

WTOP's Rachel Nania

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WASHINGTON — With breathtaking views of Georgetown, the Potomac River and Theodore Roosevelt Island, The Kennedy Center’s River Terrace is a favorite gathering spot for preshow selfies and intermission musings.

But on Sunday night, the overlook was a working kitchen.

More than 100 cooks bustled about the tented terrace, pushing stainless steel carts past long tables lined with nearly 2,000 glass plates, all waiting to be topped with circular towers of tuna and black truffle tartare — the first course of the formal dinner that followed the 41st Kennedy Center Honors.

“This has been weeks of planning and engineering to get to this moment,” said Ed Brown, chef and president of Restaurant Associates, the culinary company that oversees The Kennedy Center Honors dinner, and has for the last 30 years.

“And we [will] start thinking about next year’s tomorrow,” he said.

Many are familiar with the televised version of the Kennedy Center Honors — the nation’s lifetime achievement awards for those in the arts. But most don’t know that after the red carpet walk and star-studded tributes, the audience of A-list celebrities, politicians and distinguished guests all sit down for a multicourse meal in the Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer.

And after this year’s awards, everyone dined on licorice-braised short ribs, squash puree and baby white turnips. Two-tier, silver-plated dessert trays rounded out the evening.

“This is a restaurant-quality dinner,” said Brown, who has overseen Michelin-star kitchens and food service for venues such as the Lincoln Center and for events such as the U.S. Open.

“The food is simple and elegant, and that matches the event.”

The Kennedy Center is a public memorial that hosts guided tours, free concerts — even weekend yoga. Its accessible and varied programming is a bonus for visitors, but can prove tricky when the lobby needs to transform into a lavish dining room for 2,000 in a matter of hours — complete with floral centerpieces, crisp linens and menu cards fit for Cher.

It’s a task that takes Tom Durkee, Restaurant Associates’ director of catering at The Kennedy Center, months of planning and a staff of more than 300 to execute.

“The pressure is always high, but our staff is very used to it,” said Durkee, who initiated the dining room setup at The Kennedy Center around 10:30 p.m. the night before the event.

Sunday morning, the team arrived to finish the job, and they stayed until the early hours of Monday morning to pack it all up.

“We have to [break down] tonight because The Kennedy Center is, of course, a memorial and it opens at 10 a.m. tomorrow,” Durkee said.

How the Kennedy Center Honors dinner comes together

WTOP's Rachel Nania

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Serving high-profile people is the norm for Durkee and his team. Hands don’t shake when plates are set down in front of honorees such as Reba McEntire, and nerves don’t rattle when pre-dinner calls come in with special requests.

“The days of Rolling Stones and all that stuff are over. I think a lot of the focus now is really on healthy living, and that’s what the celebrities are doing, so our challenges now are fulfilling those needs, and so finding obscure items that are healthy, organic and vegan,” Durkee said.

Salmon and acorn squash were a few alternative dishes on-hand at the dinner for those who opted out of the short ribs.

“It’s a big deal and it’s a privilege to be a part of this event for so long,” Durkee added.

For more on the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors, check out WTOP’s interviews with honorees on the red carpet. The recorded broadcast will air on CBS Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. ET.  

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