Carla Meyer

‘Family meal’ feeds restaurant staff

At many of the top restaurants in Sacramento and throughout much of the world, employees sit down to a meal of their own, usually right before the restaurant starts to fill up for dinner. At the venerable and very busy Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento, there are three staff meals scheduled throughout the day, and sometimes as many 60 employees partake.

The food for “family meal,” as it is known to industry insiders, is often very different from what the guests enjoy. It tends to be less fussy and fancy, but perhaps more purposeful. The food needs to give waiters and bussers, cooks and dishwashers the energy to power through hours of hustle and bustle without fading.

If an ambitious cook is assigned to do the honors, however, he or she might venture to get creative and dazzle co-workers, thereby making an impression that might lead to advancement. Sitting down to eat these meals is also a way to foster camaraderie, catch up on gossip and perhaps talk about issues related to making the restaurant even better.

“I’ve never understood places that didn’t do staff meals. As a boss, I need my staff not to keel over. I need them focused, as ready as possible, energized,” Tony Maws, owner/chef of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass., told the authors of “Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants.”

In their entertaining and illuminating book, Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy bring staff meals to light, explain the dynamic that makes them meaningful and, most important, make a strong case that family meal is much more than feeding hungry staffers. It is a crucial component of a restaurant’s success.

In his foreword to this book, legendary modernist chef Ferran Adria of the former elBulli in Spain states that “what is served to the staff does not correlate with the cuisine of the establishment. But I insist, where the cooks eat well, you will eat better.”

Several of the included recipes are accessible for entry-level home cooks, and many others are involved enough to keep the interest of foodies.

Why is it called “family meal?” For one, the food is usually served family-style, piled onto plates that allow employees to grab what they desire. Second, a successful restaurant staff is one big (mostly) happy family. Adria saw this meal as so important that in 2011 he published a book of recipes called “The Family Meal.”

Who does the cooking? Probably not the executive chef, who is busy focusing on the food for guests. Usually, every line cook gets a chance to cook this meal. Sometimes, those trying out for a job or “staging” (working for the experience but without pay) might be tasked with whipping up a family meal.

“Come In, We’re Closed” says that whoever is assigned to cook the meal generally has an hour from start to finish. And it all takes place after prepping for dinner service and before actually cooking for dinnertime customers.

What is the right approach? Make something hearty and nourishing? Attempt to dazzle? Or hone a recipe and get staff feedback before placing it on the menu? All the options are there. The only limitation is the ingredients.

“Staff meal recipes normally involve the offcuts, leftovers and excess from a day of kitchen prep,” the authors write. “This leads to fantastic meals built around the trimmings from pricier proteins. Consequently, while the chicken breasts land on the customers’ plates, the thighs are staff meal staples. Homemade smoked paprika sausages, Caesar pasta salad and ‘sashimi style’ steamed thighs with ponzu sauce are just a few of the happy results.”

In writing their book and compiling its recipes, Carroll and Eddy traveled to these first-rate restaurants and sat down to eat with employees.

“To our delight, the staff meals we experienced were ripe with inexplicable quirks, and unanticipated contradictions,” they write.

The book showcases meals from an eclectic mix of highly regarded restaurants, including Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller’s casual restaurant in Yountville; The Fat Duck outside London; Morimoto in Philadelphia; and The Slanted Door, the modern Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, to name a few.

Each restaurant provides several recipes that fit a range of styles of cooking and eating. Each chapter includes a Q&A with a chef or cook from the restaurant in question.

Maws, of Craigie on Main, says the daily family meal at 2:45 p.m. is a must, no matter how swamped the kitchen is.

Closer to home, the Firehouse (which is not in the book) serves the staff a meal at 10:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Executive chef Deneb Williams says family meal includes dishes such as grilled chicken, pizza, artisan grilled cheese with heirloom tomatoes and plenty of soups. Longtime line cook Miguel Rangel often cooks the breakfast family meal, and his food, Williams says, is so good it has become the stuff of Firehouse lore.

“These meals serve a dual purpose,” Williams said. “First, you get everybody fed. It can be really distracting to work with food when you’re hungry. It’s also a great opportunity for people to sit down, take a little break and have a little camaraderie.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee