Long before the first customer walks into a restaurant, the most important meal of the day, arguably, has already been prepared: The Family Meal. It's the meal that restaurant staffers eat together before service starts, and it needs to sustain them through the next eight or so hours. Often used as a way to repurpose overstock and leftovers, it's also an opportunity for cooks to experiment with new ingredients, prepare different cuisines than what the restaurant is known for, or just make what they happen to be craving that day.
Needless to say, the quality varies. "I believe in taking care of employees and keeping them happy," says Kevin Chun, executive chef at Macao Trading Company in New York City. Recent staff meals at Macao featured seafood fried rice, artichokes and linguini and chicken enchiladas. "But I've been in many kitchens where family meal consisted of scraps, unedibles or product on the verge of spoilage. I wouldn’t serve those items to any of my family, so why would I serve it to my staff who I spend more time with than my family?"
Luckily, most of the chefs I interviewed have had positive family meal experiences. Here are the best meals…and some that are better off forgotten.
Anthony Meidenbauer, executive chef, Holsteins Shakes and Buns at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas The staff tends to love stewed items, like braised short ribs and pork belly. My favorite is when we turn the short rib into a rich tomato ragout over fresh pici pasta. Korean braised pork belly with kimchi fried rice is also a huge winner. Fajitas are the least favorite because they’re served too often.
Manuel Trevino, executive chef, Marble Lane at Dream Downtown, New York City We have a twelve-day rotating staff meal schedule, including a day for tacos, burgers, sandwiches and a focaccia-like pizza made by the pastry chef. There is no day for pig ears yet. A favorite is burger day when the real treat is the curly fries.
Beth Castollio, pastry chef, Blaue Gans, New York City We typically start with something like a Bibb lettuce salad with beets, apples, and pumpkin seed oil. We almost always have a pasta dish, like bow-tie pasta with peppers, carrots, and celery in a tomato cream sauce. Then a meat—chicken wings are a favorite. Dessert is cookies or leftovers from the day before. Schnitzel and spaetzle are also a favorite, as are cheeseburgers. One time one of our line cooks took whole potatoes and wrapped them in schniztel and baked them. The potatoes looked interesting—but they weren’t actually cooked.
Jake Klein, executive chef, Morrell Wine Bar, New York City The three most popular dishes are paella, a Latin-style meatloaf studded with whole hard-boiled eggs and chunks of provolone, and fried chicken. One of our cooks can always be counted on for a great Mexican meal—his grandmother makes a killer mole poblano from scratch and sends it in a care package. One of our bartenders brought in her mom's kimchi, that was awesome. We've also had a couple of mishaps: chicken so spicy that even the bravest, most heat-proof palates on staff couldn’t eat it. Risotto was also noteworthy—texturally, think Elmer's glue.
L.A. Thompson, venue manager, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, New York City Before service the staff gets a hearty meal of rice, mixed salad and roasted or grilled chicken or Cajun grilled salmon. Other days fried chicken, crispy French fries, and green salad are on the menu. The roast chicken is a favorite because it's not as heavy as the fried chicken. The best meal was the other day: lobster, rice, mixed salad, and roasted fingerling potatoes. The least favorite is frozen vegetable lasagna from the grocery store. Hey, some days it's got to be like that because there's too much going on.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1