Cooking staff meal for the crew can feel like a real life version of Food Network’s Chopped—minus the cash prize. There’s a hungry group to feed, limited pantry resources and not much time to make it all happen.
A chef’s natural inclination may be to tap the sous chef or to simply take the reins. But neglecting to include the line cooks, fresh-out-of-school hires and even servers when prepping comida means missing an opportunity to harness a kitchen’s diversity.
At Uchi, a modern Japanese restaurant in Austin, Texas, Chef de Cuisine Kaz Edwards often pairs seasoned chefs with less experienced cooks to prepare family meal for 15 to 30 people. When the team gathers around the table, what lands on the plate is always a bit of surprise.
“There’s Indian; there’s Asian; there’s classic American,” Edwards says. “The other day we did chicken-fried steak, and the next day, there’s a huge spread with curry and kimchee and all these different kinds of pickles.”
One of Edwards’ line cooks, Rasmy “Niki” Vongthong, whose family owned a small Asian market where she grew up learning about food, has prepared some of the most memorable staff meals.
“She always cooks what she cooks with her family,” Edwards says. “Rice dishes, curries, all sorts of things.”
“The other day we did chicken-fried steak, and the next day, there’s a huge spread with curry and kimchee and all these different kinds of pickles.”
—Chef de Cuisine Kaz Edwards of Uchi
Tapping into a worker’s background can bring authentic staff meal dishes and a creative jump-start to the table. For example, Uchi’s sake kama, or grilled salmon collar, debuted at a staff meal.
For young chefs who can overcome their jitters about preparing dinner for the staff, the family meal can even be a chance to show their chops.
At Craigie on Main, a Cambridge, Mass., beacon for local and sustainable cuisine, Chef Tony Maws says he can be analytical when a new hire prepares family meal.
“Everything we do here is an opportunity,” Maws says. “We’re always watching to see who’s ready to rise to the next step or ready for more responsibility. Are people using their noggin? Are they planning? Are they soaking beans today to use for staff meal tomorrow?”
But Maws stresses that flash and luxury don’t catch his eye at staff meal. “There are budgetary constraints, so we’re not all sitting around eating foie gras,” he says. “But we don’t feel that the so-called luxury ingredients are necessarily the definition of good food. You can cook exquisite, really simple meals.”
A recent standout at Craigie featured braised veal breast with a decidedly Asian twist thanks to lemongrass, nuoc cham, soy and sesame.
Sometimes, even the servers want in on the action. At Bar Marco, a European-inspired bar and restaurant in Pittsburgh, server Justen Burrell teamed up with a line cook to prepare a weekday staff meal. Raiding the fridge, he declared, “I love this (expletive)!” Awhile later, about 15 staff members and their friends and family feasted on a multi-course spread of chicken paprikash, three types of gnocchi and Swiss chard inspired by Burrell’s Jewish and Eastern European heritage.
“We didn’t force him [to do it],” Bar Marco’s co-owner Robert Fry says. “He was super inspired and having the time of his life in the kitchen.”
Most days, staff members eat quickly before service, but Tuesdays are special at Bar Marco. Doors stay closed while the staff deep cleans the restaurant before an intimate multi-hour meal. No matter who’s cooking, Fry says, inspiration drives the weekly staff meal. Recent spreads have ranged from a Dominican pescado con coco to Syrian grape leaves, tabbouleh, kibbeh and hummus.
“It’s supposed to be a family around here,” he says. “It’s a family business and should have that family feel. The only way that the customers are going to be happy is for the staff to be engaged with each other and to have eaten really well.”
Kate Bernot is a Chicago-based food writer and the nightlife editor of Chicago Tribune’s RedEyecommuter paper.