It might not fit with the average restaurant’s priorities, but above all else, food is sustenance. Plain and simple. Given that and, while most workplaces don’t offer their workers something to eat, should staff meals be as important a part of the restaurant business routine as great hospitality and a great menu?
I’ve often seen a decorated chef, after they’ve sampled fried chicken while judging at competitions, or a gobbled down a cheese sandwich, proclaim something on the lines of, ‘oh boy, this’d bake a killer staff lunch.’ A more common sentiment among the old dogs of the trade, many of the newer (and dare I say leaner) breed of restaurateurs call the staff meal the ‘family meal’. And they genuinely treat it as such. It’s where staff sit down to eat together, not hastily or spontaneously, and not on the hoof as was once tradition (I speak as a once kitchen porter subjected to many a bacon sarnie).
When you have respect for food, and respect for your staff, it makes sense to put two and two together. At Blacklock, chefs source specifically for staff lunch each day. ‘We look after our staff almost more than we look after our customers,’ Gordon Ker told staff-meals.com, a treasure trove of the employee meal rituals undertaken by restaurant kitchens around the world. Indeed, serving food to your cooks that you wouldn’t even think about serving to your guests isn’t likely to give them the right impression. Staff-meals.com put it another way: ‘If you feed your staff well, they’ll serve you well in return’.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. The time between lunch and dinner service can be a good way to test out ingredients or trail new dishes. At Jack’s Wife Freda in Lower Manhattan, staff order whatever they want from the menu, which, according to owner Dean Jankelowitz ‘harmonizes the experience’. Aside from, obviously, allowing staff a more intimate knowledge of dishes, they’re able to recommend them to guests accordingly and have more of a say in the holistic management of food served. Could this dish do with a little more salt? Could that one be made coeliac-friendly, without compromising on taste? As Jankelowitz observes, this input can lead to the invention of entirely new dishes, as one waitress had done with the now staple menu item ‘Mediterranean Breakfast’.
The ritual of the communal meal is among the things much of Western culture has forgotten. Somewhat ironic when you consider what restaurants hope to achieve. But the sad fact is fast food and the TV dinner has for a large part supplanted the family meal, the activity of getting together to eat, and all the benefits it affords. Especially, that is, towards building relationships and sharing ideas. At Noma, there are dozens of different nationalities in the kitchen. Which helps to expose intelligent culinary imaginations to new things. Mexicans eating Frikadeller. Danes eating tacos carnitas. French eating ceviche. It’s a hive mind of the cuisines of the world, and their staff meals are where they all come together.
So you see, there’s a lot to be said about the dynamic of staff meals. Speaking to the guys behind Carousel recently, they said their staff brunches appeared so hospitable from the outside that people would wander in and take a seat. Sometimes, they’d even go ahead and serve them. Across town at The River Café, it’s more of an open invitation – lunch is on the table for neighbouring office workers, who willingly take them up on the offer. ‘No one ever gets their food to go,’ the kitchen staff said. ‘They always want to stay and eat it here.’