Top DC Chefs Are Buddying Up With Disabled Youths in the Kitchen

The uplifting program is part of Best Buddies Homecoming gala on December 2.

Bourbon Steak chef Robert Curtis in the kitchen with his buddy, chef AC. Photograph by Evy Mages

Some of DC’s top chefs and restaurants are opening their kitchens to youths with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD)—an uplifting program tied to the annual Best Buddies Homecoming (née prom). The two-in-one gala at the Reagan Building—split between a grown-up affair and homecoming-style dance for kids with IDD—is back in real-life for the first time since the pandemic, with tickets available for the soiree on Friday, December 2. 

As part of Homecoming, chefs from restaurants including Bourbon Steak, Lebanese Taverna, Stellina Pizzeria, Taco Bamba, Carmine’s, Founding Farmers, Mayflower Club and the Ronald Reagan Building start working with a buddy weeks in advance to create special dishes for the tasting stations at the party. It’s a rare fundraiser where chefs work directly with people who benefit from the organization—and it helps introduce youths with IDD to potential jobs in the hospitality world. Over 80 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed, a statistic Best Buddies works hard to combat. One of the most common areas of employment is food preparation and service, per National Core Indicators.

“We find many of our Best Buddies jobs participants shy away from restaurants because they don’t know all the varied jobs you can have,” says Molly Whalen, director of Best Buddies Capital Region in Virginia and DC. “Through this project, they get to go behind the front of the house to the kitchens and see people doing all kinds of jobs.”

Best Buddies Homecoming launched in 2014—spearheaded by NBC4’s Tommy McFly, a decades-long supporter and current advisory board chairperson of the local chapter. What started as a bootstraps event is now one of the area’s biggest annual galas, raising over $1 million to date for Best Buddies initiatives. More than a fundraiser, it’s a way for youths with IDD to celebrate friendship and experience a fun homecoming dance like any other school kid. This year, buddies are helping plan hummus bars from Lebanese Taverna, bites of Bourbon Steak tartare, bacon lollipops with apple and brie from Founding Farmers, and more. For restaurant workers, it can be a rare chance to interact with kids with IDD, and spread a love of food.  

 “They’re finding things that make them happy, many have never had Lebanese food—and now it’s their favorite” says Lebanese Taverna chef/co-owner Grace Shea, who’s worked with buddies over three events. “All this is just paying it forward and being part of people’s lives whenever you can be.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.