At These Restaurants, Staff Meal Comes First

May 25, 2024
Dining & Wine
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When Eric Ripert was a young cook at La Tour D’Argent, possibly the oldest restaurant in Paris and certainly one of the stuffiest, all the cooks sat down before service to a proper French meal: appetizer, entree, dessert and cheese.

He is hardly nostalgic for his time there. (“I have PTSD” from the experience, he said.) But he had that meal in mind when he posted a job opening for “Staff Meal Chef” at Le Bernardin, his temple of seafood in Midtown Manhattan, making it one of only a few U.S. restaurants to hire a chef just to cook for its own employees.

Serving and sharing a meal before diners arrive is a longstanding tradition in the culinary world — at restaurants that can afford it. In most kitchens, especially in fast food and casual dining, workers have to stagger their breaks and bring or buy their own food. Even at high-end restaurants, staff meal has often been a last-minute effort, with line cooks scrambling to refuel their co-workers as quickly and cheaply as possible.

But many American chefs are devoting new attention and care to staff meals, or family meals, as they are often known. In a notoriously abusive industry, the mental and physical health of employees has become a priority, and retaining staff has become an imperative amid a post-pandemic labor shortage. With benefits and perks like family meal, restaurants are trying to build loyalty among employees. Increasingly, they’re are also using the meal as a teaching opportunity, a testing tool and a creative incubator.

Mr. Ripert said that he created the position at Le Bernardin because the daily struggle to get family meal ready affronted his pride in a kitchen that runs like clockwork. “It got under my skin,” he said.

On a May afternoon, a few weeks into his new job as the restaurant’s staff-meal chef, Noah Steers was loading a cart with trays of shawarma-style chicken, turmeric-tinted rice, beet salad, Greek salad, tzatziki and chocolate mousse. He had to feed 100 employees between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m., a task complicated by the fact that his kitchen is many corridors and an elevator ride away from the converted storage room where the workers eat.

When Mr. Steers applied for the position, his experience cooking in Thailand, Peru and Mexico impressed Le Bernardin’s chef de cuisine enough that he was offered a job in the kitchen, but he chose this role instead.

“It’s more creative than being at a station prepping the same thing every day,” he said, racing through the bowels of the office tower that houses the Le Bernardin complex.

The tradition of restaurant workers breaking to eat together exists in many parts of the world. The French system that produced Mr. Ripert, encoded by the chef Auguste Escoffier in the 19th century, was designed for busy hotel kitchens that served steadily from breakfast through dinner. Cooks ate while they sweated at the stove, and the job of keeping them on their feet with food and drink was delegated to the lowest person in the culinary hierarchy: the “communard,” who ranked above only the “kitchen boy” and the bussers.

The low status of the role — and the low quality of the meal, at most restaurants — was the standard in the United States until very recently. Long before food waste became a public concern, chefs were preoccupied with squeezing every cent from their budget. Family-meal cooks had to build meals on scraps, trimmings and food on the verge of spoiling, usually bulked out with a starch like pasta or rice.

But as the farm-to-table movement took off and the culinary profession attracted more recruits, that changed. In 1999, “The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller included recipes for “staff lasagna” and salad dressing. In 2000, David Waltuck, the chef and co-founder of Chanterelle in TriBeCa, dedicated an entire cookbook to the subject: “Staff Meals from Chanterelle.”

Along the way, “staff meal” has become “family meal,” emphasizing the emotional connections forged by sharing food during a lull in the tornado of service.

In most ambitious U.S. restaurants, there’s now a tub of ingredients dedicated to family meal, or a shelf in the walk-in labeled “comida.” At this time of year, there might be asparagus that aren’t pretty enough for the dining room, or an overflow supply of ramps.

Figuring out how to turn those into a satisfying spread is what makes family meal a proving ground for cooks. Cheetie Kumar, the chef of Ajja in Raleigh, N.C., said she uses it as a teaching tool, and a test.

“It’s an opportunity to develop all the skills that turn a cook into a chef: planning, breaking a recipe down to its components, delegating and managing time.”

And it frequently produces signature dishes. At Budonoki in Los Angeles, the chef Dan Rabilwongse said, two dishes created for family meal have made the jump to the regular menu: charred sweet potato with miso butter and chives, and fried chicken wings tossed in a South Asian-ish sauce (based on the skewers at Disneyland’s popular Bengal Barbecue stand).

The chef Fariyal Abdullahi said that posting photos of family meal at Hav & Mar in Manhattan to her 28,000 Instagram followers is part of her mission to help customers connect with the people who make their food, not just the ones who bring it to the table.

She also uses family meal as a motivator to get reluctant employees to work on Sundays, by supplying the lead line cook, Victor Estolano, with the ingredients for a sprawling Filipino feast.

“Family meal refuels not only your body, but your spirit and your mood,” said Mr. Estolano, who has worked in kitchens for 11 years.

Musashi Osaki, a sous-chef in Brooklyn, said he tries to achieve the combination of lightness and nourishment that he observed in family meal when he worked as an apprentice in Kyoto, Japan.

Mr. Osaki has shot to sudden fame in TikTok videos made by his partner, Jasmine Stoy, that show him cooking in their home kitchen and behind the scenes at Restaurant Yuu in Greenpoint. Often, he’s seen stirring soup or roasting vegetables for family meal, to prepare the team for serving 15 courses to 18 guests twice each night, in a theatrical sequence of culinary choreography.

“Family meal isn’t considered as social time,” he said. “We actually need the fuel.”

Mr. Osaki grew up working at his parents’ busy sushi restaurant near the Hamptons and moved to Kyoto when he decided to pursue a culinary career. Like the other cooks at the traditional kaiseki restaurant, who had committed to 10-year apprenticeships, he often worked from 7:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. six days a week, with family meal — always a soup, a protein and rice — as the only break in the day.

Laila Bazahm, the chef of El Raval in Austin, Texas, is one of many chefs who encourage employees to bring their home-cooking skills to family meal. She grew up in the Philippines, worked as a banker in Dubai and decided at age 26 to move to San Sebastián in Spain to train at the celebrated restaurant Mugaritz. As at most high-end European kitchens, she and the other unpaid interns (called stagiaires) were responsible for family meal, an experience she describes as “terrifying” for an unskilled cook.

She fell back on adobo, the food of her childhood. Later, at her restaurant in Barcelona, Hawker45, the staff hailed from so many parts of the world that Thai curries, Senegalese stews and Vietnamese soups all came to influence the menu.

“We used to trade family meal with nearby restaurants,” she said, a goal she’s now trying to achieve in Austin.

Family meal rarely observes standard mealtimes. At Hawker45, because many Spanish restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 p.m., staff meal was served at 7 p.m.; at El Raval, it’s at 4 p.m.

Family meal is served at 6:30 in the morning at Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, an all-day breakfast spot created by the chef Lee Anne Wong. It has to be good to get employees to come to work on time, she said. “In Hawaii, people don’t think twice about having rice and protein first thing in the morning,” so family meal might be bibimbap with Spam, or congee with fish.

Parche is a new restaurant in Oakland, Calif., dedicated to modern Colombian food, where the chef and owner Paul Iglesias encourages the cooks making family meal to start with a cookbook. The classic “Gran Libro de La Cocina Colombiana,” commissioned by Colombia’s culture ministry and published in 1984, is the one cookbook that his mother, a professor of art history, brought along when the family immigrated to the United States.

“It opens their eyes to Colombian food: the Lebanese and Turkish influences from the Atlantic port of Cartagena, the breads we make from cassava and yuca and corn, before Spanish settlers brought wheat,” Mr. Iglesias said.

The staff’s favorite family meal is buñuelos, cheese puffs stuffed with meat that are so popular that he has to enforce a rule of two per person. Parche’s family meal is open to every employee whether they are working that day or not. “No questions asked,” he said.

At Le Bernardin, where the restaurant’s famously fresh fish start pouring in before sunrise, there are two family meals each day. Mr. Ripert said he has only one rule when it comes to feeding his cooks: meat and poultry are preferred.

“They get a bit tired of seafood,” he said.

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