Chef Joseph Martin Courtesy of Levy Restaurants
Executive chef Joseph Martin

Q&A: What’s it like to rock dinner for 5,000 at the Grammys?

Here’s the behind-the-scenes story of conceptualizing, fine-tuning and getting ready to roll with a glamorous Grammys menu.

The music industry’s biggest night of the year, the Grammy Awards, came with a menu that hit all the right notes, from lemon heaven popcorn to tortilla Espanola to lobster-lemon flatbread to rotisserie chicken salad and maple-glazed huckleberry donuts, chocolate malt cake, kimchi peanut butter cookies and more.

The culinary process for this year’s menu—led by Staples Center Executive Chef Joseph Martin of Levy Restaurants—mirrors a musician’s creative process. Menus were conceptualized like albums and individual menu items were laid down like tracks on that album, doing a few different takes until each was sure to be a hit. On the big night, 300 employees prepared and served the dazzling food to more than 5,000 guests (and another 1,300 at a VIP party) at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. 

We caught up with Martin, fresh off of an exhilarating Grammys night, to get an idea of what went on behind the scenes, from coming up with the menu to executing it on the big night. Martin revealed that although he’s been doing this for a few years, he still gets butterflies.

Q: Two different menus—Album of the Year and Song of the Year—were available to guests. How did you begin the planning process and get inspiration for these two amazing menus? 

A: It’s funny because every year it is almost the same process. The process starts when my Regional Chef Gilbert Verdugo and I ask each other what we are in the mood to eat for lunch. Once we lay the foundation as to what we want to eat, we work with our culinary team to fill in the blanks.

Q: How long did you work on the menus?

A: Our team began conceptualizing ideas for the menu five months ago. We wake up in the morning and see what we want for lunch, and a lot of times that makes it onto the menu. Once we get the ideas down on paper, then we start expanding a little more. The painstaking part is just doing recipe after recipe. 

Q: Did you draw on the past at all? Are there any classic items that are traditions at the Grammys?

A: We do not go into the planning stages looking to copy food so much as we look to see how many components the menus have. If, for instance, we have had 14 items the year before, we look to keep those same numbers. We have a blend of salads, sandwiches, grazing food, snacks, desserts and entrees. There might be some items that are similar, but that’s never the intention.

Q: Could you talk about how the two menus (Song of the Year and Album of the Year) are different? It seems like Album of the Year is a heavier meal.

A: That’s a very good question. We’re looking to tell a story on how someone could graze through the menu…trying to lay out each item (or song) exactly right, so that it complements the next part. The biggest difference in the two packages is the use of higher end items and the time it takes to prep each of those items. Take for instance the tortilla Espanola; this dish looks and tastes great, but it is very time-consuming to prep. We also use beef tenderloin as well in the Album of the Year package, which is a higher end item.

Q: What was it like to work with the client? How did you get approval of the menu and what was the process like? 

A: We have a great relationship with our client here, AEG. I think the best way to describe the relationship is to make sure that they know how much it means for us to take care of our/their guests. Our guests’ satisfaction and happiness is our highest priority, as we look to provide our guests with the finest food and service around. We invite the AEG team to a Grammy tasting every year, where they can taste all the food that we are going to serve our guests. I’ve been at Staples Center for six years, but don’t let me fool you; I still get butterflies when our guests and AEG taste our food. I want them to be happy and like everything we are doing.

Q: How did you come up with idea for those sweet starters (The Dream Mix included peanut butter pretzels, sugar gumdrops, mint malt balls, jellybeans, Australian red licorice and gummy cherries)?

A: It’s something that we tried one day in our offices. We couldn’t stop eating it, and then realized that it might be a good fit for the Grammys.

Q: What was the biggest challenge overall?

A: The biggest challenge is making sure that we deliver on show day. We go through so much planning for this event, and at times it seems to be overkill, but we hope and expect to see it all come to fruition at the Grammys.

Click here to see a greatest-hits compilation of menu items from Grammys night.

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