The term "family meal" often evokes a 'Leave It to Beaver' tableau: the father figure at the head of the table, the mother in her signature pearls passing around a cream-of-something casserole. Two children flank the table, and they all politely ping-pong questions about each others’ day and which neighbor is coming over for dinner later in the week.
Now, add about 60 more people to the table. Replace the pearls with chefs’ whites; take away the Corningware casserole dish and add stainless steel buffet pans. After the mountains of plates are cleared, the diners are not off to catch the nightly news or be tucked in - they’re going to feed 300 more people.
Welcome to staff meal – more commonly referred to as “family meal” within the industry – the standard pre-service sustenance for restaurant workers.
They, too, ask about each others’ day – specifically, how the gnocchi special came out or the guests who are coming to dine that night, whether regular customers or a recent graduate celebrating with a whole roasted pig.
It’s quite simply the way cooks want to eat: nothing too fancy and often using up the kitchen's excess ingredients. Before six to eight hours on their feet in the heat of the kitchen, the staff wants solid nourishment - not an airy cheese soufflé.
“Despite the fact that we’re cooking all day long, we rarely get a chance to actually stop and eat,” said Maialino’s executive chef Nick Anderer.
"The way that a cook works is on their feet; they eat on their feet. What we try to do is get them to actually sit down, get their butt in a seat, get a fork and a knife and eat a plate of food,” he continued.
Family meal is one of the rare occasions where the front and the back of the house mingle - and where the kitchen brigade is broken down. Dishwashers are seated next to a chef de cuisine, who in turn is next to the beverage director. Forks clink, stories are shared.
It all feels like summer camp in a way, but there is no mess hall slop to be choked down. Even lauded, pedigree institutions like the French Culinary Institute have a class devoted to training aspiring chefs in the art and respect of the staff meal.
“Staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with by-products, using scraps to make something taste, eye-appealing and satisfying. But the message underlying that was ‘Can you be passionate about cooking at this level?’” wrote acclaimed American chef Thomas Keller in The French Laundry Cookbook.
“Staff meal. Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you'll be a great chef. Maybe.”
Just as the act of preparing a meal for someone else shows care and respect, a restaurant's family meal can also act as such - a sign of esteem among colleagues.
At Maialino, the cooks spent the better portion of two hours preparing family meal – a quite substantial time frame, considering they also have to get ready for 300 covers that night.
Family meal also serves an outlet for creativity – a dress rehearsal for dishes to come, and a break from the normal cuisine of that particular place.
“I remember being a line cook and being in that position and using family meal as like ‘Hey! I get to do whatever the hell I want.’ It’s a creative outlet for them. I’m sick of this cacio e pepe and want to do something I want to do,” said Chef Anderer.
“At first when you’re learning how to be a line cook, it’s a nuisance – but once you become comfortable as a line cook and good at what you do, it becomes something you look forward to because it’s the time to get to be creative.”
And that makes for one mother of a meal.
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