No, staff meals are not a right. But for the great number of us who have worked in the restaurant industry at one time or another, we also understand that there are great staff meals, and there are also terrible ones. In most cases, professional kitchens use the staff meal as an opportunity to get rid of all the meat and produce that's about to spoil (hopefully you like penne with wilted beet greens and old sausage scraps).
For other chefs, staff meals can be used to experiment with future menu items, or to give a young cook a chance to shine. We spoke and emailed with a few of L.A.'s better known chefs and restaurateurs, and asked them about the best and worst staff meals they've eaten in their careers. Here's what they had to say...
10. Andre Guerrero, Chef/Owner, The Oinkster:
Some of the best staff meals I remember were ones prepared by my Mexican cooks. One in particular was guisado tacos. One of my cooks would remove the meat from veal shank bones that were simmering for our veal stocks. The meat was very rich because of the gelatinous texture from the tendons. He would make a chile sauce, chop the meat up and simmer it together. He would then make a salsa, cut up limes, chop onions and cilantro, then make tacos for everyone. This became so popular that I found myself ordering extra bones for staff meals.
Best: Middle of July in Madison, WI, I was working at L'Etoile with chef Tory Miller and they rolled out the most amazing BLTs for staff meal that I had ever had. Silence. I know it sounds simple but they were the most gemmy tomatoes ever. Still think about them all the time. Harriet the Spy eat your heart out, plus bacon! Also -- Animal makes the bomb family dinners, lots of love and care.
WORST OF THE WORST: Place shall remain nameless, but I swear to God they served us either frozen french fries and chicken nuggets every other day, or day-old and congealed gnocchi... sometimes a salad... it was disgusting.
I think the idea of the bowl is ubiquitous. Take a bowl. Fill it with something. Garnish. The weirdest I've seen is:
Bowl: Over or undercooked Tuna that wasn't served, topped with White Bean Soup.
Then there are the sandwiches. With Angeli bread around, sandwiches can be strange and baroque or, my favorite:
Angeli Bread cut in half. Insert deep fried Potato Croquettes. Eat.
The ones that aren't so weird are the people who obsess about the same things over and over. Pizza....there was one female waiter who ate a Calzone Fritto everyday. That's like a pizza doughnut. And me and Kathy, my chef. We're more, a bowl of braised greens with stuff on top.
7. Gary Menes, Chef/Owner of Unnamed Future Restaurant:
When the French Laundry Cookbook came out, I had just gotten there. But Grant [Achatz] was still there, Greg [Short] was still there there, and Eric Ziebold. And in the French Laundry Cookbook there's a thing about family meals, and they write about lasagna. So we used to rib Eric about that, while all we ate were cold cuts, standing up. And he would say, "One of these days."
Then one day, he brought in sheets of pasta, which he bought with his own money. And there were no stores in Yountville back then. Just one liquor store. So he went to Napa and bought the ingredients. And to have somebody of that caliber, with that much respect for ingredients, to have him make us this really home-style lasagna...
And we were all in the shit, prepping for 19 dishes. But we all got a piece, and we actually sat out in the French Laundry garden and each ate it. It was the most memorable meal of my lifetime. That was one of my most memorable meals to date, as far as family. I don't know if a lot of people understand, once you have that momentum, you have to do 1,000 things, so setting aside five minutes, which you did not have originally, to meet the deadlines, with expectations like no other... That amount of pressure made that truly memorable.
Grant Achatz was a health nut. He didn't eat fat. He doesn't eat much dairy, only eats lean meat. Works out three times a day -- I don't know how he did that. We'd get there at five in the morning, and he would be eating egg white sandwiches. But even he had a slice.