Why is cooking staff meal important and whose job is it?
The responsibility of cooking staff meal typically falls on the lowest member of the kitchen hierarchy. Chef uses it as a way to test their palate and skills. Do they over or under season their food? Do they know how to cook meat and fish properly? How is their sense of timing? Can they deliver on a deadline? Chef can’t taste every dish, or cut into each piece of meat that comes off the line to be certain it’s cooked correctly. Staff meal thus becomes an ideal way to test someone’s skills and ensure they have what it takes before being put on a station.
You can imagine the stress that this put on any kitchen noob. For me the dreaded but inevitable day arrived two months into my stage. Chef pulled me aside after work and told me that he was making staff meal a part of my daily responsibilities. I went home and had nightmares. The next day I showed up and made a semi-decent version of fried rice (with slab bacon, the most popular ingredient in the kitchen) topped with an over-easy egg. My only real mistake, (well at least the only one Chef mentioned) was using oil to cook my eggs instead of butter or rendered beef fat. A useful tip to file away—use more interesting fats.
Staff meal sounds like a great opportunity, so why the anxiety?
You know the idiom “too many cooks spoil the broth”? I think the initial speaker was witnessing the making of staff meal—a kitchen full of cooks all too eager to tell you when you’re doing something wrong; e.g. the way they would do it, and therefore the way you should be doing it. Yes, learning from those more skilled than you is a good thing, but sometimes you’re better off trusting your own instincts. One clever stage managed to circumvent this issue by disappearing to some forgotten corner of the kitchen in the late afternoon. He would reappear 30 minutes before service with a completed staff meal. Pure kitchen genius!
However, the onslaught of unwarranted advice could occasionally be used to your benefit. I remember the afternoon that I declared I was making chili and grilled garlic bread for dinner. An animated discussion ensued over what belonged in a pot of chili. I ran through a list of ingredients, cooks nodded along… then I said garlic and jalapeños. “Sharon” Chef said bluntly, “you don’t put those in chili”. Wait, I don’t? But I do! And it’s quite delicious. (I should note that Chef doesn’t like spicy food. He thinks the cook is trying to cover up the fact that they don’t know how to develop flavors correctly). As I fumbled for the words to justify using garlic and jalapeños, someone else blurted out that they add a bit of chocolate. Immediately Chef’s critical gaze shifted away from me to the more egregious offender, and I quickly scurried off to collect the necessary ingredients for my chili… sans garlic and jalapeños, of course. You can ignore the tips of the other cooks but never, ever ignore what Chef says.
Everyone has their best recipes, why not just cycle through those?
When cooking staff meal, there’s an unspoken rule that you don’t repeat dishes. You want to challenge yourself by making new things and being creative. However, sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle when all you’ve got is root vegetables and 30 minutes to cook. Some thrive in this environment. We have one cook who I refer to as the little mad scientist. He can come up with the most creative staff meals, each one with multiple components. If it is something simple like sandwiches or hamburgers, he’ll bake fresh bread. He can make ingredients magically appear. I don’t know how—I’m quite certain I don’t want to know—but they do, and it is always interesting in the best sort of way.
However, if you ever find yourself extremely pressed for time (super “in the weeds”) go ahead and put out a rerun. The one thing to remember—the most important point of all—always serve something. If you’re on staff meal and don’t put anything out, you will be hunted with torches and pitchforks. Okay, maybe not the first time, but you will quickly make people’s shit list if you do it more than once.