“Babes, I can fend for myself if you want to stay at work and join the other cooks around the table for dinner”. Dinner around a table? What is he talking about? After racking my brain for a few moments it dawned on me that my husband was referring to staff meal.
Staff meal, sometimes called family meal, is food consumed by the kitchen staff, typically before dinner service begins. My husband isn’t alone in his misconceptions of kitchen life. There is a scene in the Catherine Zeta-Jones movie No Reservations where the cooks and wait staff are sitting around a large table in a bright dining room, laughing and passing around plates of pasta and sampling the day’s menu. Ah Hollywood, how you love to romanticize reality. In a real kitchen, the scene more often involves cooks hunched at their stations devouring a plate of food, or periodically picking at it (depending on what’s for dinner). While they eat, they continue to cut, blanch and whisk—making that final push before diners arrive and the orders begin to roll in.
I was part of the morning prep team when I first started out in the professional kitchen. I would work until about 7-8pm, and then hurry home where I would cook and eat dinner with my husband. If I ate staff meal at the restaurant I wouldn’t have the motivation to cook dinner, so I never ate at work (consequently Chef developed the belief that I was allergic to everything except air and water).
The preparation of staff meal terrified me from the get-go. The first time I met Chef he used the preparation of staff meal to explain how he expects the highest quality of work from his cooks at all time. “You need to be aware of details,” he said. “Yesterday we had BLTs for staff meal and the cook forgot to blanch and peel the tomatoes”. I could feel the blood draining from my face as my mind screamed, “Peel tomatoes for a sandwich or burger? I am going to be so screwed!!!!” Here I was begging to apprentice in a kitchen where cooks were expected to know that you always peel tomatoes, celery and remove the germ from garlic. And you’d better not just know—you’d better do so, no matter what you’re making.
My first week on the job I was so nervous, worrying that any day Chef would ask me to prepare that day’s staff meal. Naturally the news arrived in the most terrifying way. Staff meal Iron Chef style. A battle between the three stages. The one with the worst meal leaves the kitchen.
Do you know what an out-of-body experience feels like? That afternoon I had one that lasted the full 45 minutes that I was given to cook. I quite literally floated to the ceiling and watched myself fumble around the kitchen.
I got it in my mind that I would make Chinese fried noodles; always a crowd pleaser, and something that I’ve made a million times. Except in a professional kitchen you don’t make a grocery list and hit the super market. You use scraps, trim, and must-go items. And at the last minute I found out that we only had veal trim and fettuccini noodles. In hindsight, I should have changed my plan and served an Italian-American dish instead. Unfortunately, I was too frantic and couldn’t think straight, so Chinese fried fettuccini noodles with veal is what I made. Was it the worst? No. Did I get booted? No. Thankfully, no one ended up being forced to leave in shame, but it certainly wasn’t a proud moment either.