Staff meal is the time of the day when we normally sit down, have a bite to eat and take a little breather, before the busy dinner service. Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not so great. Heck, sometimes the kitchen is so busy, we don’t even stop to take a break.
Staff meal is different at every single restaurant. Some restaurants have staff meal before dinner service, some right after lunch service and some enjoy staff meal after dinner service is over. Some high end restaurants have a cook/cooks dedicated to cooking for the staff. The chef at Chanterelle in NYC, even wrote a cookbook as an homage to staff meals at their restaurant. At one restaurant I used to work at in NYC, I very much looked forward to the monthly menudo(Mexican tripe stew) the head dishwasher made. We also used to go berserk when the executive chef would order in endless buckets of “Popeye’s Fried Chicken and Biscuits”. Occasionally dozens of Krispy Kremes would show up on the pass and even trays of homemade Rice Krispie squares would appear when the head of HR would stay up late and whip up a batch for us. The aging fromage from the legendary cheese cart, a little too ripe for the Upper East Side clientele, was perfect for us cooks to spread on warm fresh baked bread. There was always something good to eat for staff meal there.
At Tapenade, we have staff meal at 4:30pm. I try to push the guys in the kitchen to be “deadly on time” with staff meal. The boys normally start their day at 10:00am and don’t stop until staff meal. I prefer that we all sit down, rest for 30 minutes and then “get back into the mix” after an enjoyable dinner. We normally sit with the front of the house on a large table on the patio or in the dining room and enjoy a quick bite together. We catch up on our lives, we mock and tease each other endlessly, we tell overly dramatic stories and gossip about the silliest of things. Occasionally, we’ll discuss restaurant business or talk about food and wine, but most of the time we’ll just chat, eat, digest and think about what we have to do for the rest of the night.
In general, all of the kitchen staff pitches in and makes a dish for staff meal. Usually it’s made of trim, food samples or bits of food that is getting on in age. Staff meal is a great test of a cook’s skill and “intestinal fortitude”. To be able to quickly improvise, make something tasty and visually appealing, out of very little, is not an easy task. Somehow, my cooks make it happen. This week alone, we dined on “Godfather’s pappardelle with a spicy lamb ragout”, coq au vin with pomme puree, “Great Wall’s roasted pork shoulder with salsa verde”, a quartet of “Johnny Baramundi’s wicked cheese toast”, “Boomer’s Cake Boss Apple Tartlettes”, “Fat Joel’s house-made choucroute”, “Fish Lady’s blue mussels”, linguine with duck confit and goat cheese, my famous scrambled eggs and the list goes on. Sure, we don’t eat like that every day, but overall, we eat fairly well. Sure we’re not eating rack of lamb and dover sole for dinner every night, but I would never trade the occasional confit pork belly or roasted halibut collars we get to eat.
The truth of the matter is, I spend more time at work with the team at Tapenade, than I do with my wife and daughter at home. Even though I wish I could be at home for dinner every night of the week with “Monk” and “Jazzy”, it’s also nice to sit down with the restaurant “family” and have a little supper.