Capitalizing on Comida

The staff meal can be a time for camaraderie and also an opportunity to test new dishes.

A sign of thanks and camaraderie. A calm before the storm. A chance to sit down and to fuel up. Staff meal often is more than its name implies. But a test kitchen, too?

A no pressure environment to test drive new dishes, staff meal has become an incubator for menu ideas in many kitchens. Some deliberately use the opportunity to gauge reactions to preparations or ingredients. Others have discovered a winning dish can come from a happy (and profitable) accident.

Chef-owner Jeff Black owes a top-selling dish at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace to a comida he scraped together on the fly for the dishwashers at his first restaurant, Addie’s.

One night, upon discovering that no one yet had “fed the boys,” he instructed his saute cook to fry some chicken thighs, which had been braised in red wine and veal stock for the restaurant’s coq au vin dish, in the kitchen’s calamari batter. The dishwashers practically licked their fingers clean. 

“For days after that, the dishwashers were like, ‘Jefe, jefe, pollo frito!’” Black says. “So I said to the cook, ‘Go ahead, cook me a piece.’ I ate it, and it was insanely good. I kept (the idea) in my back pocket.” 

They take more pride in what they're cooking...They want to show off.

-Chef-owner Jamie DeRosa of Tongue & Cheek on the staff's efforts to make a menu-worthy comida

Fast forward a few years and this wine-braised, twice-cooked fried chicken is among the best selling dishes at his seafood restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s 14th Street neighborhood. Black tweaked the dish a bit before adding it to the menu, swapping red wine for white and removing carrots from the braising liquid so it wouldn’t stain the meat red, but the recipe remains quite close to the chicken first fried for the back-of-house staff.     

“We thought it might be fun,” Black says of the decision to put fried chicken on the menu at an upscale seafood spot. “But once the critics tried it and it got a lot of ink, everyone wanted to come in for it.”

Braising then frying chicken is a time-consuming technique, but Black optimized the labor by offering to-go buckets. While he has no plans to open a fried chicken restaurant, he can’t deny the excitement behind the dish’s unexpected success. 

More than 1,000 miles away in Miami, Tongue & Cheek has found a way to capitalize on staff meals: add them to the menu as happy hour specials.

Between 5 and 7 p.m., the casual, chef-driven American restaurant offers drink specials alongside a daily changing TV dinner-style plate at the bar for $10. It’s a chance to extend Tongue & Cheek’s family meal beyond the kitchen and justify a slightly higher food cost for comida. “Mexi-can Mondays” means tacos, yellow rice and an avocado-tomato salad. “Big Daddy’s BBQ” means ribs, corn and potatoes. Sundays, it’s “Clean Out The Kitchen Sink Day.” 

The happy hour’s popularity has been a boon to business and has also fostered friendly competition in the kitchen. Instead of serving odds and ends for staff meal, Chef-owner Jamie DeRosa found the challenge of making a menu-worthy dinner has inspired his cooks. 

“They take more pride in what they’re cooking,” DeRosa says. “Suddenly, it’s ‘Who can make the best barbecue sauce?’ It’s not just a task. They want to show off.” 

Adding staff meals to the menu doesn’t have to mean restructuring service, though. It can be as easy as watching for staff reactions and asking for feedback. 

At Chicago’s Takito Kitchen, Chef David Dworshak first tested a new way of cooking sopes at staff meals. The version Takito already served at brunch was performing well, but he wanted to experiment with a fluffier version made with polenta, cheese and corn. 

“It was a small tweak, but it made a big difference,” Dworshak says. “People went crazy for it.” Gauging reactions from staff, especially servers, clued him in to which version of the sopes was menu worthy. However, he notes that staff meal is a much different animal than regular service. “Something for staff meal that you’re going to put on the menu should be cased out a few times before it really hits,” he says.

Testing menu items during staff meal can seem like extra work, and it’s not going to happen on days when reservation books are full and the kitchen is short a dishwasher. But taking one or two days each week to test new dishes with the staff can pay dividends with a few happy accidents.  

Kate Bernot is the nightlife editor at RedEye Chicago who’s always eager to try comida.