“I never had a bad staff meal,” said former Palihouse chef Gary Menes. “I'm very grateful for all the chefs I've worked for. They don't have to do it. It's not mandated by law that they have to feed us, or the waiters. That's their generosity, and I humbly accept it.”
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.
When I worked at Maxime's in Chicago, it was an offshoot of the Paris restaurant, I remember that there wasn't any place to sit down [for staff meal]. They never made it into a nice tradition. But I remember having boiled salt pork with water — and this was before pork belly had any panache. And it also wasn't very delicious.
Also, when we would make a consommé, and they would take float [all of the leftover meat and egg scraps], which has no flavor, and we would be served that for staff meal.
At our restaurants, a lot of Susan [Feniger]'s and my my inspiration for Border Grill came from the delicious staff meals at [former restaurant] City. Our mushroom empanadas, our avocado cilantro salsas, a lot of the stew type dishes. Ropa vieja came from a staff meal. The line cooks take turns making staff meals, and they get kind of competitive with it, and really wanted to make it shine. It's an important part of our restaurants.
As far as “staff” meals that I do with Wolvesmouth…I normally don't eat the day of a dinner, so the next day I usually cook everyone brunch and we hang out the whole day eating eggs Benedict, French toast with maple or nutella, roasted potatoes, bacon, sausage, fruit, cheeses, baked beans, and mimosas or Bellini, depending on the season. It's usually a three to four hour staff meal.
As far as the best staff meal I have had, I have worked in quite a few places but I am going to say it was at Nostrana, in Portland, Oregon. Making pizza, breads, and roasting vegetables in the wood-burning oven, and we would also make a nice salad to balance out the weight of everything. Simple quality ingredients cooked really well with attention to detail.
4. Nguyen Tran, Owner/Manager, Starry Kitchen:
One of the best internal staff meals: the creation of the Spicy “Crack” Krab Cake. It's become one of our most popular dishes, and something our sous chef developed, and we ate behind the scenes. Who woulda thunk it?
But actually, my favorite staff meal so far was from the party that preceded Test Kitchen. They served hors d'oeuvres, fancy tiny desserts and then some which was all good… but man, was I hungry! I was about to leave the party and head out to In-N-Out, until I noticed they started having staff meal with some awesome Peruvian chicken dish topped with fresh salsa… and I kinda crashed the “party” to see if they had any more left, and indeed they did. My buddy Ricardo Zarate asked if I wanted any (I had two servings ^_^). That was a nice staff meal (and I wasn't even part of the staff that time!!).
I kind of like staff meals more sometimes because it's more comforting and hearty too (at least from my perspective). And honestly, I like kicking it with the staff sometimes more than anything else. It makes me feel one with the people (when I'm not wearing my banana suit ;D).
3. Zak Walters, Chef/Owner, Salt's Cure:
The chef I worked for in San Francisco, Denis Leary, (Rubicon) would often make secret staff meals, and if you were on his good side or had a good day you got the invite. His favorite was lamb tagine and socca. Lucky for me I always got invited…
The best staff meals usually happen Monday or Tuesday. That's because one of our cooks likes to party and ends up bringing back a really good nam prik (mortar-pounded Thai salsa) from the weekend festivities. Variations include: nam prik pla ra (fermented gouramy fish), nam prik het (roasted mushrooms), nam prik ta daeng (red eye salsa), et al. You steam some veggies and sticky rice, grill a few sausages, fry up some bottom feeder fish and flank steak jerky, then you've got quite a feast on your hands.
1. Johnny Yoo, Chef de Cuisine, Lukshon:
As far as best and worst, nothing memorable enough to remember.
But when I worked at Sona, it was the only place where it was mandatory that all staff stop what they were doing, at 4:30, and had staff meal together with a white tablecloth table setup in the back of the restaurant. I thought that was pretty cool.