THE head chef disliked me from the off.
While some of the more attractive waitresses chose at will from the high-priced menu, he ensured I received nothing but crap to eat. Though the menu was crassly studded with trophy items (caviar, frogs legs, expensive champagne) most of the cooking involved grills, deep fat fryers and very few pots and pans — there was plenty of crap to choose from.
On one particular night, the third day running I had pulled a double shift, I was, as usual, starving but had passed the evening secreting away a single leg from every order of frogs’ legs I cooked. As soon as service finished, I wrapped the frogs’ legs in a teatowel, added a jar of caviar, swiped earlier from the cold store, shoved them down my pants and snuck out to join Ian, one of the busboys.
We wolfed down the frogs legs, hardly chewing and then lit two cigarettes, taking a spoon to the caviar. I had my back to the kitchen door and a mouthful of caviar when Ian, looking over my shoulder, turned a startled exclamation of ‘Chef!’ into something approximating a greeting, simultaneously slipping jar and spoon into his apron pocket. “Just a quick fag break, Chef, back in a sec,” said Ian.
In my panic, I took a deep, corroborating pull on my cigarette and inhaled a lungful of caviar and smoke, triggering a coughing spasm so violent, I ended up on my knees. “Get back in that effin’ kitchen,” snarled Chef in disgust, turning on his heels. I finally walked out a week later.
Come In, We’re Closed – An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants, by Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy reads to me like the stuff of pure fantasy, but then these establishments operate in an utterly different league to any place I ever worked in. Amongst others, in this beautifully photographed and highly intriguing behind-the-scenes insight, Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck (England), Mugaritz (Spain), Michel et Sebastian Bras (France) and New York’s WD-50 share thoughts on the staff meal, or as it is increasingly known, ‘family meal’.
Each restaurant also supplies recipes for typical family meal fare. Sometimes, as in Montreal’s Pied au Cochon, dishes such as Au Pied Poutine — crisp, salty fries topped with cheese curds and pork gravy — are kith and kin to the foie gras/fat/pork/booze-heavy menu available to customers, but they also enjoy virgin (ie alcohol-free) mojitos and Redhead Tempura Maki Rolls. That other great carnivore’s culinary temple, St John, in London, serves up an entirely vegetarian menu, apparently much relished by the staff.
In recent years, there is more of a cachet to being a chef, making it increasingly appealing to those from a middle class background, who in turn expect better conditions and decent meals as a right. You can be sure there are still some top names out there serving up muck to staff but sheer pragmatism dictates that the better you feed ’em, the better they will work.
Naturally, many dishes are made up from the judicious use of leftovers but staff are no longer viewed as dustbins.
Another practical reason for family meal is the opportunity it affords for team-building and resolution of any conflicts that so frequently arise in such pressurised, high-octane workplaces.
At Ad Hoc in California, staff are fed daily but after last service before the weekly two-day closure, a very special family meal is prepared including wine and staff give each other ‘roses’ or compliments. The tradition is called ‘thorns and roses’ but the practice of dishing out ‘thorns’ or criticisms was ditched very early on; some things are best left in the kitchen.
Gary O’Hanlon, Viewmount House, Co Longford
“On any given night, we have up to 18 staff between front of house and the kitchen and it’s important to feed them. I usually eat standing up, on the fly. On Saturday, I always personally cook the staff dinner; it’s something I’ve always done and loved it. We have a meeting, a meal and then, by 6.30pm, we’re ready in reception waiting for customers.
“They’re always tasting the menu, the new girls there will generally get a new dish to taste until they’ve gone through the menu. But we often have pasta dishes, chicken, curry — they’re very fond of crispy beef and hoisin pancakes. They wouldn’t thank you for steak or duck or veal; they’re very interested in something new.
“Of course, we use leftovers as well, if we’ve been trimming calves of beef then there’ll be beef stew. Pies are very popular, venison, potato and swede pies, chicken with vegetables, tomato, cream and capers is one of my favourites.
“Staff in my restaurant don’t get second-rate food, they’re not getting baskets of chips, chicken goujons. We want them to understand what they’re eating. They’re judgemental because they’re trained to be judgemental. I’ve seen the trays of beans, goujons and sausages in other restaurants — to be honest, it’s more expensive than what I give them but not half as good.
“On Sunday, we sit down and have a big lunch. Once the last meal goes out, the staff have whatever is being served to the customers. On Saturday nights, once the last main course is gone, especially after a crazy night or service, there is a drink or two for all the dishwashers. My staff are treated well because they work very hard. I ain’t fishing out venison for them everyday but there’s absolutely nobody in Viewmount who hasn’t had a taste of every dish on the menu. That’s important, even if we do up little tasting plates.
“It really affects you, what you eat. I remember one place back when I was about 17 and it was godawful, sausages, beans and fries every day— I’d rather go home for a lie-down than eat that crap. In the States, the chefs ate whatever they wanted and front of house had to pay 50%.”
Ross Lewis, Chapter One, Dublin
“It depends on who is cooking. You might have a young fella only two years cooking coming up with chips, lasagne and deep-fried cauliflower and [laughing] you have to give him a clip around the ear, pull him aside and show him how to come up with a nice balanced meal.
“We serve the waiters first and then all the chefs in a big room behind the restaurant. We don’t really buy in stuff— some places would, big cans of beans and so on — we use trimmings and off-cuts. Fish off-cuts, spud and leek trimmings — it becomes a fish pie. Occasionally you might get in some pork chops or sausages and have sausages and gravy and mash. Something special is expected on Saturday, we get spices from Arun [Green Saffron Spices] and everybody loves a really good curry with pilau rice or a shepherds pie.
“I worked at El Bulli for a week and there’s NOBODY gettting paid there — maybe four or five in the kitchen — everybody else is doing a ‘stage’ [an unpaid stint in the kitchen to gain experience], working for the year for free and getting put up in cheap accommodation, so they have to feed them. So, they can afford to have one or two people cooking for the staff of 45 or more.”
Paul Flynn, The Tannery, Dungarvan, Co Waterford
“You’d be amazed at the shite some chefs are happy to serve their staff. I take it very seriously, on point of principle and for very practical reasons: chefs work long hard hours and you owe it to them to make sure they are fed properly, looked after.
“We have a rota, a different person cooking each day. I always look at it as a chance for them to showcase themselves and their abilities, I actually view it as an insight into how they cook. Given the freedom, it’s an opportunity for young chefs to do something nice. Mind you [laughing], it’s also a rope with which to hang themselves — and they can do that too. I sometimes look at what’s served up and ask, ‘What the fuck is that?’ Sometimes you see shocking combinations. We have breakfast once a week on a Sunday and if my scrambled eggs are any way iffy, I’m not happy. I like my scrambled eggs to be done just right.!
“Most days, we just use up leftovers, tell them to do something nice with a bit of fish, a paella or something, but other days we’ll buy in a chicken, roast it. We had a Catalan chef about nine or 10 years ago, Joseph, and he was brilliant. He used to do pretty much all the staff meals and we’d all be looking forward to each new dinner. When I was young fella working in kitchens, I didn’t eat, I was about nine stone. I can never sit down in my own restaurant any more and enjoy my own food. I only ever really relax and enjoy food at home or in another nice restaurant.”
Enda McEvoy, Aniar, Galway
“Everyday, by 4.30pm, I insist everyone sits down to eat, to talk about what’s happening, the bookings, what’s going on in their lives. Cooking the family meal usually falls to whoever is doing the butchery.
Lately, that has been Paul, our chef de partie, but either me or [sous chef] Conor will take a turn on the other days. We have pies, a big pasta gratin, always one protein, one starch, one salad or veg, and bread. It’s not just thrown together. Obviously, we use a lot of offcuts but we always have a proper, composed meal. It’s very hard to make nice balanced food if you haven’t eaten a nice, balanced meal.
“Another new discovery is Sriracha sauce, a Thai hot sauce. It’s amazing. The sort of food we cook on the menu has no spices or anything like that; the veg is just seasoned, so for us to have staff meals with ginger and spices is a bit of a treat. On Saturdays, we have a bowl of mussels, a pizza from Massimo’s Pizza, our sister restaurant, and some bread and Sriracha hot sauce.”
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