- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

A four-year stint as a fast food employee could scare off anyone from a profession in the culinary arts. For Shannon R. Shaffer, executive chef of the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace

Restaurant, slinging burgers at a Roy Rogers restaurant in Frederick, Md., had the opposite effect. It let him taste the adrenaline rush of the food trade.

Today, the stakes are a bit higher, but the purpose is the same: Mr. Shaffer delivers food on time and the way the public wants it.

Mr. Shaffer, who lords over the restaurants and catering services at the Kennedy Center, handles the usual daily chores of the position in addition to mammoth events like the annual Honors Gala.

No matter the time of year, Kennedy Center patrons don't exactly fit the profile of the usual diner.

"You have to be creative. They're eating all over town, two to three times a week," says Mr. Shaffer, who grew up in Middletown, Md. "The clientele eats at the best restaurants around the world. It's challenging to bring our food development up to standards they're used to."

In person, Mr. Shaffer appears more likely to recite Derek Jeter's batting average than the ingredients of a scrumptious souffle. But don't let his age, or his youthful appearance, fool you.

The 31-year-old Falls Church resident oversees a staff of 30, including four sous-chefs.

Mr. Shaffer, who began working at the Kennedy Center more than two years ago as a temporary sous-chef, doesn't deny some patrons might be taken aback by his youth.

"I've always been in a position where I'm extremely young," he says, noting he earned his first chef position at 24 at Le Bon Cafe in Alexandria.

But in some ways his age gives him an advantage over older, more established chefs.

"If you're not out there doing the new techniques, you're going to get passed up," he says of the current culinary culture. Previously unaccepted food combinations, such as using red instead of traditional white sauces with fish, serving micro greens and using herbs cut the first week of growth, are now what many diners expect.

By his own admission, his greatest strength isn't a killer lemon tort or delicious pork tenderloin entree.

It is his organizational chops, his ability to keep all the dishes spinning in a complex operation, of which he is most proud.

"Culinary school gives you everything there is, from the front of the house to the back," the 1992 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America says. "You have to understand both to succeed."

Complicating matters is running the Roof Terrace restaurant, where a late-delivered meal means someone misses the curtain for Act I.

Mistakes simply won't be tolerated.

The restaurant, a plush affair located in the Kennedy Center's top level, seats 250. Running its smooth operation doesn't, however, tell the full story of Mr. Shaffer's duties, particularly during events like the Kennedy Center Honors in December, when upwards of 1,800 people need to be served a three-course meal at 11 p.m.

"There's always the chance that something could go wrong," he says. "You allow time to combat any mistakes."

Despite the pressures, disasters are rare, he says, although no kitchen can avoid a mishap or two. Two years ago, the chicken curry sauce simmering for Honors guests "broke at the last minute," sending a panic through his team until he was able to restore its consistency with a touch of last-minute corn starch.

Planning for high profile evenings can begin up to two months in advance, he says. First, his team meets with Kennedy Center staff to brainstorm about potential food offerings. Then, he prepares a tasting of several menu options, setting the plans in slow motion. Meal production begins about five days in advance of the event.

For all the inherent stress in his position — his longest streak of days worked in a row stands at 22 — he claims to keep an even temperament.

"If you lose your cool, you're not able to produce," he says. "If you're screaming at people, there's always that tension. You do have to be tough in the kitchen otherwise, they take advantage of you."

Eamonn M. Bagnall, general manager of Restaurant Associates, which operates the Kennedy Center's dining facilities, sees the sandy-haired chef's age, which older clientele might sniff at, as a benefit.

His lack of "attitude" is also a plus.

Some chefs prefer to remain behind the scenes, creating an air of mystery about them. Mr. Shaffer gladly bounds out of the kitchen to greet his patrons, Mr. Bagnall says.

"A lot of chefs are very ego driven. It's what they want to cook and produce that's on the menu," he says. Not Mr. Shaffer. "He's not shy. He's open to sitting in on a tasting to find out what people want and act on it."

Mr. Shaffer has a little fun on the job, too, despite the 20-hour days. His proudest dessert creation, for instance, was a whimsical chocolate boat striking a lemon sorbet-shaped iceberg served when the musical "Titanic" graced the Kennedy Center stage two years ago.

Even patrons as seasoned as those visiting the Kennedy Center long for a dash of variety on their plates.

"The clientele want to see some old favorites, but they want to see some change, too," he says.

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