If you’ve never clocked in time working front or back of the house at a restaurant, chances are the term “staff meal” is not part of your vernacular. For the uninitiated, here’s the deal: In most establishments (the kinder ones, at least), the staff sits down together for a meal before service.
Of course, depending on where you work and who is in charge of the staff meal, this early dinner can range from an abysmal afterthought (think a hotel pan of barely boiled hot dogs, crumbly stale buns and a gallon of brand-X mustard) to inspired plates of Filipino-grandma-inspired chic-ken adobo.
Sean Magee’s crew at Time fills up on hearty plates like waffle sandwiches of pork roll, egg and cheese courtesy of sous chef Craig Russell. On the gloomier side of family meals, an anonymous former line cook shares tales of Hamburger Helper/shepherd’s pie hybrids maliciously made to give the front of house digestive discomfort by a disgruntled cook, and worst-case-scenario creations like chili made from past-its-prime gazpacho and suspect burger meat.
But regardless of the food, the staff meal can be a team-builder, a chance for coworkers to sit down for a second, take a moment to chat and fuel up, preparing for the shift to come.
Come In, We’re Closed (Running Press, Octo-ber 2012) provides a glance at the pre-shift meals served at some of the world’s finest restaurants, and many of the menus are enough to entice you to quit your day job and take up dishwashing.
At Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, meals are served to the public family-style, so feeding the staff in a similar manner is a given. The sheer volume of business means that staff meals don’t happen every day, but every Monday afternoon, chef de cuisine Dave Cruz lays out charred-scallion-stuffed skirt steak and chocolate-peanut-butter-crunch bars.
A bit closer to home, Masaharu Morimoto talks makani, the Japanese tradition of the staff meal. Morimoto explains that in an environment where junior cooks are usually relegated to menial tasks such as cleaning and prep, cooking a meal for the restaurant’s employees provides an opportunity for younger chefs to gain some actual cooking experience. Morimoto’s staff-meal menu is made up of leftover odds and ends repurposed into inventive dishes like fish-bone soup with jalapeño oil made with cast-off skeletons from the sushi bar.
Next time you’re eating out and you catch your server hungrily eyeing your plate of pappardelle, that’s a pretty good tip-off as to that restaurant’s staff-meal situation.