Restaurant workers are working their hardest while the rest of the world is taking time off of work to eat. It’s a straightforward connection: as a restaurant cook, I work during conventional meal times. But the cooks, especially as exceptionally food-obsessed people, are hungry as well. So what do we eat?
Cooks are, obviously, surrounded by food all day. My job requires me to take small bites from my dishes each time I prepare them, checking for seasoning and flavor. I am constantly tasting ingredients and sauces. However, a hundred bites of lemony, garlicky fish broth do not constitute a satisfying meal when you are on your feet for a long shift.
Many restaurants serve a “family meal” just before the establishment opens, as a benefit for the staff and also to pragmatically prevent cooks from passing out in the kitchen heat. All restaurants have different standards and practices– some use low cost items from the menu (fried chicken, salads, etc), while others use family meal as a test run for new dishes, or an opportunity for individual cooks to show off their skill.
Many kitchens, however, also use family meal as an opportunity to cut down on food waste, and get rid of product that is too past its prime to serve to customers. At my current restaurant, one line cook is responsible for preparing the meal and serving it on time. On an average day, the family meal cook might arrive and find a small pile of ingredients on a shelf in the cooler to work with: a half quart of slightly limp green beans, the blanched potatoes from last weekend, five ounces of snapper, and a bit of an old vinaigrette.
Now, like Jesus during his sermon on the mount, transform that into a meal for fifteen to twenty people. Including your boss.
For many months at my restaurant, family meal was my responsibility. At first, I emphatically despised the role. Family meal adds a lot of pressure to an already tight kitchen prep schedule; you still have the normal responsibilities of all the other line cooks in addition to the staff meal. You have few, or low-quality, ingredients with which to work. And, you are preparing food for people who work with food professionally. In my first few weeks, I apprehensively served a lot of buttered pasta and garlic bread.
However, slowly, I started to evolve my own family meal style. I made a few bizarre (“original”) pastas, then discovered how to make a simple sauce taste good. I became more creative with my salads. I learned the art of soup d’anything, because my northern upbringing taught me that there is no better way to feed lots of people from few ingredients than hearty soup and dipping bread. I started to scheme the day before, doing extra work to prepare the healthiest, most comforting meal possible.
After a few months, I even started to enjoy making family meal. It was a daily challenge, looking at odds-and-ends ingredients and making a meal out of them. Sometimes the staff would request certain dishes, or there would be an unfamiliar ingredient, forcing me to do some culinary research. Other times, a classic dish would prompt my coworkers to reminisce about their family recipe for a certain soup, or the way their grandmother made turnip greens.
The more work I put into family meal, the more I felt a small release, a quiet return to what I love about cooking food in the first place. In my day-to-day kitchen responsibilities, I cook dishes from someone else’s menu, and then I watch the plate disappear into a dark dining room to some stranger’s table. I love cooking at the highest level, learning plates from different world cuisines and traditions. But when I cook family meal, I am cooking whatever I feel like, whatever creation I can with leftover ingredients. I have a unique challenge and a sliver of culinary freedom.
And I am cooking, with love and urgency, for the people around me, for the people who are working hard for you when you come into my restaurant. In the midst of a fine dining restaurant, preparing classic sauces and grand plates, I am also learning a thing or two about the homiest of cooking- a family meal.