Duty Relief

Formerly a sous chef’s job, the family meal is now an equal opportunity instructor

Once the domain of the sous chef, the responsibility of staff meal is changing hands as line and prep cooks begin to take charge.  After all, who else is going to feed all those hungry employees when the sous chef is swamped?

Sous chef phil Niosi of Al Forno in Providence, R.I., knows family meal is vital to the restaurant’s staff of 40 and rotates the responsibility to give everyone a chance. This keeps costs down, sharpens his line cooks’ mise en place skills and forces them to budget their time—abilities a good sous will always demand of a line crew.

“They go overboard sometimes, which is nice,” he says, noting that the predominantly Central American kitchen crew tends to prepare rice and beans, tacos and other simple dishes.

"When I was an apprentice in Colorado I learned a lot from making staff meals. It's good to pass that knowledge on."

— Sous Chef Phil Niosi, Al Forno, Providence, R.I.

Despite the occasional redundant menu, Niosi says the Al Forno staff would never complain. “If they complain about it, they’ll lose it,” he says.  And no one in the Al Forno family wants to forfeit food. Aside from the camaraderie, a well-fed team performs better, Niosi says.

At the Naked Oyster in Hyannis, Mass., Sous Chef Julien Swanson uses kitchen meal as a teaching tool. A newly arrived fish, for example, becomes part of the staff meal, giving cooks a chance to learn how to prepare it and the front of house an opportunity to understand  how to sell it. The staff meal also gives line cooks an opportunity to break away from the regular menu and throw in personal touches like sesame-crusted tuna with teriyaki glaze. 

Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub in Milwaukee can’t serve a meal to its large staff every day, so Sous Chef Paul Funk sets aside Mondays as pho night when the Vietnamese noodle soup is already on the menu as a special.

Funk sees prep of the weekly family meal as the perfect place for rookies to hone their craft.  Plus, while crew members may not be the most forgiving audience, they’re also not paying guests. Mistakes can be pointed out and lessons learned without the risk of disappointing valuable clientele.

Kurt Michael Friese is a chef, restaurateur, and author in Iowa City. His latest book is Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail.