The staff meal is coming out of the kitchen.
We’re curious about the restaurant staff meal, the standard pre-service sustenance that’s commonly referred to as family meal within the industry. It’s a time-honored tradition in restaurants where the staff spends its shift surrounded by food but is too slammed to manage more than a few half-cold, intermittent bites while standing up in the kitchen.
Family meal is a rare occasion when the hierarchy of the kitchen brigade is broken down, and the front and the back of the house mingle—dishwashers sit with beverage directors, hostesses with sous chefs, and line cooks rub elbows with bartenders. The food that’s served is also a break with the restaurant’s traditions and culture.
Chefs use staff meals to experiment with future menu items and as a training ground for young cooks. Pantry and prep cooks might try their hand, and the wait staff might turn it into a potluck one night. It can mean Brazilian home cooking served by the Latino line cooks at a French restaurant or potpies from a pastry chef looking to branch out into savory dishes.
The odds, ends, and nasty bits.
Cost is paramount. Staff meal costs are tax-deductible for the restaurant, but the IRS forbids owners from dinging wages. The well-run restaurant makes use of leftovers, less-than-prime produce, and cuts that can’t find a place on the regular menu. Inspiration is found in the far reaches of the walk-in where wilted kale, lamb necks, and days-old cuttlefish will find their way into casseroles, croquettes, and curries. Meals end up looking like a cross between recessionary home cooking and a reality TV cooking challenge. And as with any home cook responsible for turning out a regular family dinner, there are hits, misses, and nights when you can’t do better than hot dogs on buns.
There are the staff meal legends.
At most restaurants, the kitchen staff is stuck behind the stove and the servers are likely to grab a plate and cop a squat in the alley out back. Then there are the family meals responsible for the low turnover among staff at Chanterelle in New York’s SoHo, where the whole restaurant gathers nightly around a white linen-draped round table in the dining room for rich, French bourgeois feasts. Thomas Keller, the chef-owner of the hallowed French Laundry who began his own career cooking staff meals, puts on a lavish weekly sit-down celebration for his staff; and in the culinary stratosphere of places like Copenhagen’s Noma and Spain’s (now closed) El Bulli, the kitchens are literally filled with dozens of unpaid crew members willing to work merely for the offer of free staff meals.
Eat staff meals and still keep your day job.
Two recent cookbooks, Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants, and Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants take you inside the staff meal time of some very good kitchens.
After each night’s dinner rush, D.C.’s District Commons restaurant rings an old farm bell signaling the start of the family meal, offering customers a classic staff meal menu at a bargain price.
The restaurant industry blog StarChefs features occasional profiles of extraordinary and unusual staff meals.