Personal high and low points of my time cooking staff meal:
My biggest disaster was probably scalloped potatoes that suffered from too much liquid and too little time in the oven. When I served them they had an al dente quality (not what you’re looking for in potatoes), and had to be rescued with a slotted spoon from their milky grave. Another small miss was my five-spice rubbed salmon. I made a hot oil infused with ginger/scallion and light soy sauce based concoction that I drizzled on top but I knew I’d failed the seasoning test when chef reached for the salt after taking his first bite.
The slow-out-of-the-gate chili that I mentioned yesterday actually turned out to be a success. For some reason everyone was done prepping early that afternoon, and so in a rare moment our kitchen had a chance to sit down and enjoy a meal together. We each found a spot on carpet runners along the kitchen floor and sopped up the hot chili with thick slices of grilled garlic bread. We talked all things France: what it’s like to work in a French kitchen, the life of an apprentice and how and why the food in France has changed over the years. When Chef polished off his bowl of chili, he stood up and said “not bad”. That might not sound like praise to some, but Chef doesn’t normally comment on staff meal so for me that was a huge compliment. To be honest, I don’t know if Chef was commenting on my chili or my breadth of knowledge on the 2006 youth labor protests in France… I like to think it was the former.
The chili was a feather in my cap, but my pièce de résistance was probably a simple, but well executed beef stir-fry that I made towards the end of my stint as the staff meal cook. The flat-top in our kitchen (a very hot flat surface on which you can cook with multiple pots and pans at once) has concentric circles of steel. The center is the hottest, and each circle is cooler moving out from there. I removed the two center steel pieces and set two woks directly over the flames that were trying to escape out of the hole. It was like cooking in an old-school Chinese kitchen. I caramelized sweet onions and shiitake mushrooms, sweated garlic and tossed up some pre-blanched broccoli rabe. Then I seared thinly sliced strips of beef in small batches. Generously seasoning everything as it cooked with a sauce I had composed earlier (away from the critical eyes, opinionated minds and loud mouths of the other cooks). Finally, I tossed all the components together in the hot woks. Added slivered scallions, a drizzle of sesame oil and served it up with steamed white rice.
That night I had about 30 minutes to roll out ravioli so I disappeared pretty quickly after putting out staff meal. I ran into Chef about 15 minutes later. He paused and said, “really great stir-fry”. In my mind I saw a hundred balloons drop and heard confetti guns firing, covering me with millions of colorful sparkling pieces of paper. I felt like one of those girls who just won a freakin’ beauty pageant. Except instead of fanning a tear stained face, I think I mumbled a barely audible “oh thanks” and hurried off.
Chef wasn’t the only one to compliment my food that night. Several of the other cooks told me how much they loved it, but in the end a word of praise from Chef is akin to finding the Holy Grail.
I haven’t made staff meal since I switched over to working dinner service on the weekends. Part of me is relieved to not be under that kind of pressure, but part of me misses it as well. I’ve found a new kind of challenge in the fast paced environment of dinner service. Being forced to remember orders as they come in, and plate those orders quickly and perfectly every time is tough enough. But I miss learning new dishes and cuisines. I miss being shown how to make the perfect plate of pasta from the sous chef who used to work in an Italian restaurant in NYC, and spent his summer vacation biking up and down the Italian coastline. I also miss scribbling down recipes like the one I got for flat bread, passed down to a young cook by his Armenian grandmother. Or watching our Colombian line cook make hominy cakes and chorizo. The best staff meals are those that are heavily influenced by the background of whoever’s preparing it. When the cook is not excited by the challenge it shows. However, when they are–and when they take pride in what they’re serving–it can be some seriously tasty food.
So now you all know. Most of us who work in kitchens around the city don’t take off our aprons and sit down at a table complete with napkins and stemware. We eat leaning against the stainless steel countertop or squatting down behind our station. Our napkins are rough paper towels we call C-folds. Stemware is usually a deli (those little containers your take-out soup comes in) or maybe a quart container filled with ice water that we’ll refill several times in an effort to stay hydrated during dinner service. We don’t eat what you’ll be enjoying in our posh dining room. Rather our dinner was prepared by a nervous noob, mad kitchen scientist or an exhausted prep cook—maybe someone who embodies all three, using scraps and hopefully a good dose of imagination.
Staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with by-products, using scraps to make something tasty, eye-appealing, and satisfying. But the message underlying that was “Can you be passionate about cooking at this level?” Staff meal. Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity, and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you’ll be a great chef. Maybe.
— The French Laundry Cookbook