For those of you who don’t know, family (or staff) meal is offered in restaurants to employees before dinner service begins. Everyone sits down to eat together as, well, a family. And it is definitely a family experience. Who’s complaining that they don’t want what we’re eating, or who is eating two or three portions before the entire staff has taken their serving. It’s a social experiment for sure.
I have heard of restaurants charging their staff by taking money from their checks, but, most provide the meal as a courtesy. Some restaurants’ family meals are legendary, with the recipes of the dinners published in cookbooks (elBulli, Union Square Cafe) so the general public can replicate them at home. Other restaurants have less stellar meals, using the remnants of what they can’t serve the public anymore (as you may have read Anthony Bourdain write about in Kitchen Confidential). Sometimes, to save time, restaurants will allow you to eat from the menu. This is a good way for servers to sample and be knowlegeable about the food served in the restaurant. Greens, the restaurant at which I interned during culinary school, did this. They had the staff eat from the plates for the daily tasting (we had to get an example of our dishes for our station ready by 4pm and the Executive Chef and Sous Chef would review and adjust for seasoning). Most I’m sure, come someplace in between.
At the restaurant I currently work, whomever is scheduled during the morning shift is responsible for making the meal for the day. That means I usually make or assist in making dinner or on Saturdays and Sundays. It can be a nerve-wracking experience because you’re displaying your cooking chops for your co-workers. A lot of them are foodies and just as interested in food as you are. You have the opportunity to show off what you can do, but at the same time, you don’t have unlimited amounts of ingredients or time to work with. You also have to please a number of palates. Everyone has likes and dislikes, allergies, or special diets they’re adhering to that week, all of which add a bit of pressure and stress to creating an enjoyable meal. Some days, I feel like I’m on an episode of Chopped, because we’ve been slammed during service and we don’t have that much time to prepare a creative and interesting meal. Usually, I like to come in having considered what to cook. That way, I can prepare the meal throughout the day. Though, there have been times where I’ll want to make a certain dish and either we don’t have the ingredients I want to use, or because I’ve been off for the two previous days, I don’t realize that pasta, for example, has been made three days in a row and my co-workers will mutiny if it’s made again.
I love the opportunity to be creative and cook what I love for my comrades. I love the challenge of making something different each week with the same group of ingredients. I love seeing what my colleagues choose to make using that same variety of produce, herbs, spices and sundries. I love to repurpose something we’ve already made into another entirely different meal. Working in a restaurant as a line cook doesn’t really allow for that much creativity. You’re preparing the chef’s recipes, and follow his or her vision. I do enjoy that. I enjoy working with food and beautiful ingredients, but making staff meal allows me to practice my own recipes. Sometimes they’re good, other times, I know I miss the mark. Can’t win ’em all! .