The Family Meal Without the Dysfunction

Give your staff the gift of a loving food coma this holiday season

Whether you call it staff meal, family meal or comida, just don’t miss getting called to the table, especially during the holidays.

“We’re in Kansas City, so we’re big steak eaters. For Christmas Eve, we brought in rib-eyes and drank some good red wine,” say Chef Colby Garrelts of Bluestem, a progressive fine-dining restaurant in Missouri that he owns with his pastry chef wife, Megan. “For the holidays we’ll get some (great) stuff in.”

The staff meal has come to mean more than providing food for employees. It’s a way to foster camaraderie, reinforce the meaning of hospitality, promote team building, test menu items and show appreciation. For some restaurateurs, these reasons especially hit home during the holiday season.

“The day before Thanksgiving we did a take on turkey dinner, with roast turkey sandwiches with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.”

—Chef-owner Mark Mendez at Vera in Chicago

At the casually elegant Mexican restaurant Empellón Cocina in New York, every station contributes to the staff meal. It’s either “hyper-authentic Mexican, like mole, or it has absolutely nothing to do with Mexican cooking," says Chef-owner Alex Stupak.

"We have a cook who worked for Dave Chang who’s made the Momofuku ramen, poached eggs and all," he says. "We’ve got a multicultural kitchen. Either way, it’s an opportunity to try a recipe.”

But during the holidays, Stupak—a self-described dictator—goes for the tried and true.

“I’m very much a traditionalist and I like to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” says Stupak, who sets aside modernist experimental ingredients like hydrocolloids  in favor of turkey, brined and roasted. “Stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy—nothing like a turducken—that’s what I’m into. But we had mole poblano on the side.”

At Christmas, Stupak, who also owns Empellón Taqueria, still veers classic, albeit more indulgent, for the staff meal.

“For Christmas, we had prime rib, wrapped in bacon, cooked sous vide to medium-rare, then roasted at an incredibly high temperature,” he says.

Desserts are also traditional. Stupak’s pastry chef wife, Lauren Resler, makes pies for staff meals during Thanksgiving and a Yule log for Christmas. Kitchen and front-of-the-house staff are also likely to find heart-shaped cookies around Valentine’s Day.

Taking the “family meal” a step further, Chef-owner Mark Mendez and his sommelier wife, Liz, close their Chicago restaurant, Vera, during the holidays. “We know how important it is to be with your family on major holidays,” she says. “The day before Thanksgiving we did a take on turkey dinner, with roast turkey sandwiches with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.”

The couple’s approach to the holiday season and the accompanying staff meals personifies their definition of the industry they love: hospitality.

“In so many restaurants, back of the house eats in back of house and front of house eats wherever, and that creates this unspoken division,” she says. “I said, ‘We’re all going to sit down like human beings. We’re not sitting on crates holding plates.’

“We’re in the hospitality business, but a lot of times how we eat family meal is not very hospitable. It’s important having really good comida,” Liz Mendez says.

Louisa Chu is a food blogger for National Public Radio.

Culinary Detour

While some restaurants embrace the classic Thanksgiving spread, Chef de Cuisine Hillary Sterling breaks tradition with this Mexican inspired menu at A Voce in New York.

Turkey: Mole-rubbed and roasted chicken

Stuffing: Chorizo and cornbread stuffing

Dessert: Smoky pecan pie