Tag Archives: staff meal

The Fear, Anxiety, Pleasure and Pride of Making Staff Meal: Part III

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





The Fear, Anxiety, Pleasure and Pride of Making Staff Meal: Part I

“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.