Some of the most indelible memories of food come from grandmother’s table, meals brought to life by her trove of recipes handed down from one generation to another.
These recipes can often be found in restaurant kitchens, where chefs are using comida as a way to bond with staff members. After all, the ritual of sharing food at the family dinner table is an ethos that jibes with restaurant missions everywhere.
For Luis Cabanas, sous chef at Paley’s Place Bistro & Bar in Portland, Oregon, serving recipes from his native Yucatan is a way to share his culture and his history with his co-workers. His arsenal is heavy on traditional Mexican family recipes, including braised chicken with mole, tacos and sopes (thick tortillas topped with ingredients).
“These are traditional simple foods, like what people made at home,” Cabanas says. “I like to tell them about where I come from and where I used to live.”
For staff meal at Malai Kitchen in Dallas, co-owner Yasmin Wages often serves her grandmother’s mari wara kukra, a Tanzanian chicken dish stewed in black pepper, ginger, garlic and red pepper. “I still remember helping her cook when I visited,” she says. “The smell of butter and freshly crushed peppercorns from Zanzibar was always my favorite. I remember those aromas to this day.”
"These are traditional simple foods, like what people made at home. I like to tell them about where I come from and where I used to live."
-Luis Cabanas of Paley's Place Bistro & Bar
Nostalgia aside, Wages says the recipe is easy to make on the fly. “Mari wara kukra makes for a great staff meal because it’s simple,” she says. “It doesn’t take long to prepare, the spice level is manageable and the flavors are unique.” She usually serves the dish with jasmine rice or tortillas to add familiarity for the staff.
Many constraints on staff meal are the same ones matriarchs faced at home, namely scarcity of time and ingredients.
At Mason’s in the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, Executive Chef Brandon Frohne often dips into a treasure trove of family recipes to make dishes that can satisfy a hungry crew and be prepared quickly using ingredients on hand. His interest in Asian cooking, the Japanese heritage of several staff members and the dishes he inherited by marrying into a Filipino family provide plenty of recipe options.
Dishes such as inarizushi (rice-filled fried tofu), tamagoyaki (layered omelet) and yellow mustard fried rice easily come together fast. Speed is essential for a team that has just 30 minutes to prep and eat before the dinner rush.
Just as Grandma needed to clear out the icebox, all restaurants look to use those last wilted greens and any other leftover vegetables.
At 404 Kitchen in Nashville, Chef Matt Bolus uses scraps to make a rustic zucchini bread served at staff meal. The bread, which he remembers having available all summer long, is made from a recipe passed down from grandmother to mother to son.
“We cook staff meal here the way we cook everything else: uncomplicated (and) honest,” Bolus says. “Best of all, it’s relatively inexpensive, which is perfect for staff meal.”
Sharing one family recipe often spurs the sharing of another. Following the zucchini bread, Bolus’ butcher, Luke Williams, brought his grandmother’s manicotti recipe to staff meal.
That said, some chefs don’t have the luxury of drawing upon hand-me-down recipes from a talented matriarch. “My mom could not cook,” quips Chef de cuisine Mathew Jackson of Il Casale Cucina Campana in Lexington, Massachusetts. “That is why I became a chef.”
But he does want to serve good food to a hungry crowd in a short amount of time (and to serve something other than pasta). So Jackson makes the kinds of food his mother made, but with better ingredients and with a chef’s flair. Instead of Hamburger Helper, there’s stroganoff; from-scratch mashed potatoes instead of spuds from a box.
A staff that expresses joy about eating and acknowledges the food that someone else prepared is, well, just like what Grandma used to make, Wages says.
Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based business, travel and food writer.